Emotional Intelligence and the C-Suite Emotional Intelligence and the C-Suite
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January 24, 2019

Emotional Intelligence and the C-Suite

By: Kevin O'Neill, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, Acertitude

I recently had the honor of interviewing the father of Emotional Intelligence, Dr. Daniel Goleman, amongst an inspiring group of business leaders at the World Business Forum in New York. Most people in business have at least heard of Emotional Intelligence. Golemen has effectively defined it, quantified it, and, through his books and lectures, helped us understand how best to utilize the concept.

As the co-founder and managing partner of Acertitude, the executive search firm unleashing human potential, I am an unabashed devotee of EI. 

At Acertitude, we connect businesses with brilliant leaders — and vetting emotional intelligence is fundamental to how we recruit people. 

A typical assignment of ours is to help a private equity firm recruit a chief financial officer for a portfolio company. A successful portfolio company, as Jim Cahn wrote in Forbes, needs to be able to identify and allocate strategic and diversified resources, while retaining and growing cost and tax efficiencies.


From left to right: Daniel Goleman and Kevin O'Neill at the 2018 World Business Forum. Photo courtesy of WOBI

Our clients need CFOs who can operate successfully in each of those dimensions, on all of those planes, while simultaneously building a team that can add value to the rest of the company and its investors.  

One of the ways an executive search firm like ours helps leaders evaluate candidates for their C-suite is by building a competency framework, correlating big data from our proprietary database. 

As Goleman shared on stage, “What they're looking for is the ability to manage yourself and to handle relationships effectively. That's the definition of emotional intelligence. That's what really matters.”

He continued, “but I think every generation needs to learn this. I saw some data recently. A global survey of top executives, 91% agreed: Soft skills, emotional intelligence skills are what matter for leadership. But then when you ask new hires it reverses: 70% say technical skills are more important. So, this is a lesson that needs to be learned I think constantly for new hires.”

We know, as Goleman suggests, what identifies the top 10 percent of leaders — the few men and women who are able to select, grow, and manage high-performing teams effectively. 

We work with business executives to make certain they understand what their needs are. We help them, as Goleman recommends, build a competency model, which he defines as the “abilities that distinguish the high performers” and then, as he says, “hire people who look like the stars” — the people who share the same attributes as the 10 top percent. Goleman breaks his framework into four buckets: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship-management.

We have found in practice what Goleman suggests in his research that a candidate must already possess competencies that he or she can identify in, or transfer to, their team members. In the self-management realm, among these are emotional self-control, adaptability, achievement orientation, and optimism. 

Everyone who has been in business for more than a few months can point to very successful people who defy one or more of these traits. That’s falling into the “whatabout trap.”  Because Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Michael Dell (among other examples) dropped out of college, it is the rare parent who will counsel their otherwise capable child to drop out of college and build computers in your basement.

That fourth attribute — optimism — may be the most important.  A positive outlook is what gets a team beyond what may become the tedium of their day-to-day tasks.  It is what helps them get back on the field after a disappointment or failure. A positive outlook is the fuel that inspires the team moving in the right direction — toward your mission.

Members of a successful corporate team must, collectively, have a high level of emotional intelligence. On a team with high EI attributes, it is easy to spot those few who do not.  They “don’t fit in.”  They “can’t keep up.” They’re a “nice person, but …”  

The team leader — the person we are looking for — can help direct an emotionally intelligent team.  He or she has to demonstrate the adaptability to accept a different route to the stated goal.  Having done that, the leader has to provide immediate feedback – positive if the new approach worked, or constructive in helping the team member (and perhaps you) understand why it didn’t. 

When searching for a new CEO or C-Suite leader, we also consider attributes from within Goleman’s ‘self-awareness’ category — empathy, especially, is a major trait. Goleman suggests the best leaders display Cognitive Empathy, Emotional Empathy, and Empathic Concern.

Cognitive Empathy, Goleman shared at the World Business Forum, is seeing the world through others' eyes, “I get your perspective.” It is a “mind-to-mind” connection with people. Emotional Empathy is feeling what others feel, “I know how you feel because I feel it too.” Finally, Empathic Concern is caring about others, “I not only know how you think and how you feel, but I care. I want to help you.”  This is a “heart-to-heart” connection.

In the end, the best leaders are visionaries “who can articulate that vision and who” utilizing all of these skills and characteristics “can inspire others to share that vision” as Goleman put it.

Daniel Goleman’s most important contribution to finding, developing, hiring, and promoting leaders is he has taken us out of the “I know it when I see it” definition of leadership to a measurable and identifiable series of features attributes.  

He shared that, “what I found is that for jobs at every level, emotional intelligence is about twice as important as cognitive ability. The higher you go in the organization the more it matters. For top-level C-suite jobs, 80% to 90% of the abilities that distinguish high performers, as identified by the company itself, is based on emotional intelligence.” 

It’s not that cognitive ability or IQ doesn’t matter; they are Threshold Competencies. Being smart is the ante that gets you into the game, but you will soon realize that everyone at the table is as smart as you are. 

The differentiators — the attributes that demonstrate the edge the C-Suite peers are looking for — are how you handle yourself, how you handle relationships, and, because you have high emotional intelligence, you are able to teach and instill those qualities in your team members.


Kevin O’Neill, managing partner and co-founder of Acertitude, is a trusted partner and strategic advisor to many of the most prominent private equity executives and CEOs around the world. Based in New York, Kevin leads the firm’s focus on recruiting brilliant people at work by creating human connections, using sophisticated methodologies and analytics, and bringing companies’ inside stories to life. He brings over 25 years of experience recruiting the senior-most leaders for PE-backed consumer, healthcare, and industrial companies.