Emotional Intelligence: You’ll Know It When You See It

Emotional intelligence (EI) is relatively easy to define, but somewhat difficult to describe. I discovered years ago that this creates some challenges for executive recruiters discussing candidates’ EI competencies.

In the mid-90’s, I worked a search along with a colleague for a rail yard general manager at a large metropolitan subway system. The system had been having some labor trouble and needed new leadership. A strike in the system, which was brewing, meant a transit shut down which would bring the city to a grinding halt.

One of the candidates we presented had exceptionally high EI. Our attempts at describing this competency to our client fell flat. Fortunately, they selected him for other reasons, among them, he was articulate and well groomed with a history of success working a similar role in other environments with labor unrest. Our client also felt he would fit in with the system’s leadership team. Offer letter signed, our client and candidate established a start-date.

Per our usual practice, we planned to call the client towards the end of the first day to check in. On this placement’s first day, however, our client preempted the call at 10:00 am. This is never a good sign, so I began to listen to the call with apprehension. My colleague was repeating the client’s side of the conversation with increasing dismay:

“He showed up; okay, that’s good.”

“Uh…on…a Harley?”

“In…a muscle shirt…”

“…and he has tattoos all over his body?”

By this time, I was convinced we were going to have to resurrect our back-up candidate or conduct the search all over again. After a moment, my colleague began to chuckle and concluded the call with warmth and mirth; apparently, the new general manager hadn’t failed his first day after all.

Our client had reported that our placement had earned instant credibility by

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showing up in a persona with which the rail yard workers identified. They immediately recognized that their new boss understood them and was willing to enter their world despite his management title. That first day, our placement never went to the office, but instead walked the yards introducing himself, learning about his new team, their roles, responsibilities and their challenges. In the short term, this placement averted a strike and eventually, he turned around the morale and the performance in the yard.

I often think about the emotional intelligence our placement exhibited by understanding the assessment process with us search consultant and our client; recognizing our potential for risk aversion, during the interviews he had worn suit and tie and showed no evidence of tattoos. He presented as a leader with which anyone in management would identify. Yet, he also understood the value of establishing immediate credibility with the workers and knew exactly how to ensure they would recognized him as one of their own, despite his title.

During the search, we weren’t able to sufficiently communicate the EI we saw in our candidate. I imagine other executive recruiters have experience the same challenge. Fortunately, in this circumstance, our client selected the candidate for other reasons; and there’s no question they quickly saw what we had been trying to convey; they recognized EI when they saw it in action on our placement’s first day.

Photo credit: iStockphoto

About the author: Before founding ScoutRock, Caroline McClure enjoyed more than 16 years working on both sides of the executive talent equation, as a search consultant in a global retained executive search firm and eight years as director of executive search for a Fortune 50 company.


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