The Gatehouse Blog

The Magic of Sustainable Business Success

 Emotional Intelligence and Leadership: the magic of sustainable business success

In September, Virginia Hicks and Alison Boothby from Comma Partners brought together some 30 heavyweight communication professionals to share their thoughts and experiences around introducing Emotional Intelligence as a part of their leadership communications strategy.

Emotional intelligence is receiving significant attention at the moment in the field of leadership development and communication with as many as 85% of the world’s top 500 organisations allegedly claiming it is an essential leadership skill and the single most important factor in predicting success.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage your emotions, and those of the people around you. Leaders must have a solid understanding of how their emotions and actions affect the people around them. The better they relate to and work with others, the more successful they are likely to be.

Despite the high awareness of the importance – if not the value – of emotional intelligence, it is interesting that we are still not seeing much evidence of it in corporate life” observes Kate Hogben, an independent internal and change communications consultant. One reason for this might be that it is still seen as a ‘soft skill’ or perhaps an inherent rather than an acquired skill, and lacks a body of hard data and evidence to get it to most top tables.

Rebecca Hilliard, formerly the global manager for internal communications at Shell, agrees: “From my experience, it’s about finding the right moment which will depend upon the business situation. When there’s a burning platform and leaders are looking for ‘the thing’ to help them connect with their colleagues, that’s the opportunity to bring it in.”

EI as an engagement technique

Lisa Cornell-Norman of Teynham Associates is currently leading the engagement piece of a transformation programme at Eurostar. Having introduced emotional intelligence capabilities to several organisations to date she suggests that, “Working it in through the engagement agenda is a good place to start. Leadership teams are already comfortably familiar with the benefits of enhanced employee engagement and emotional intelligence, when broken down into component parts, offers a set of capabilities that can be easily understood.

Daniel Goleman’s published best seller “Emotional Intelligence” has done a great deal to popularise the concept and breaks it down into five easily understood capabilities, and it is this model that Cornell-Norman makes use of in her work:

  • Self-awareness – emotions, strengths and weaknesses, impacts
  • Self regulation – redirecting disruptive emotions and adapt to changing circumstances
  • Social skills – managing people to move in the right direction
  • Empathy – considering other people’s feelings especially when making decisions
  • Motivation – driven to achieve and driving others

Communication impact

So, what does this mean for communicators? For freelance IC consultant Kareen Griffiths, it raises some serious questions: “As communicators our role is evolving. The old days of managing the message are gone. Our roles, now a little blurred, are entwined with colleagues in HR, PR, Marketing and Engagement. And this means our credibility is at stake unless we embrace communication in its entirety, learning more about the psychology behind it along the way. We are too often criticised for being ‘pink and fluffy’ and it’s our job to ensure that we are in tune with how our organisations communicate to retain our creditability with leadership.”

Virginia Hicks of Comma Partners is inclined to agree: “The role of a senior internal communicator is much more about influencing and coaching their senior teams to be able to really connect with their colleagues across the business. There’s no doubt in my mind that to be a good practitioner today, our own emotional intelligence must be very high to start with.”

By focussing only on our leaders, aren’t we missing the point? Gareth Morris, an interim internal communications manager thinks so: “I’m concerned that we are taking a scalpel-like approach to leaders and managers, when we should be going down a more holistic route for organisations. We spend 240 days a year at work and we all go through the entire gamut of emotions from hatred, anger, frustration, boredom, excitement and perhaps even something approaching love. Work is an emotional experience and we need everyone to get on board with this sort of training.”

Few would disagree with Morris, but unless the leadership are on board and exhibiting the right communication behaviours, the organisation will not reach its full potential. Having the ability to understand and influence how and why people at work are feeling the way they do, amidst the changing and highly fluid state of the modern corporate world is vital for business leaders if they are to successfully steer their organisation through periods of substantial change.

EI and change

Cornell-Norman goes a step further: “Change programmes are doomed to fail unless emotional transition is achieved and this does involve everyone in the organisation. It demands time and commitment from leaders and a new kind of business conversation within a climate of trust.” Hogben picks up this point: “In my experience, and especially during periods of intense change, leaders with high emotional intelligence are not just visible; they are vocal. They invite conversations about purpose and vision in authentic and informal ways. Gone are the days where they rely on their communication team to provide a script.”

Social media

The leaders that Hogben refers to are steps ahead as social media platforms continue to permeate business. Hilliard explains: “Our leaders are increasingly exposed to their colleagues who in the past they may not have had direct contact with. The discussions they enter into now, and how they take part in them, will distinguish them as authentic, credible leaders or not, and this is where emotional intelligence will really play out. Not only do they need to gear up for a faster pace of discussion, but they need the ability to react swiftly, appropriately and publicly in a way that fosters conversation and demonstrates understanding of the issues raised.”




BIOGRAPHY Virginia Hicks & Alison Boothby

Virginia Hicks has run Comma Partners since it was set up in 2007. Previously Virginia was an independent communications consultant with Unilever and Network Rail. Her early career was in sponsorship, PR and marketing until she specialised in internal communications with Thorn (owner of Radio Rentals) and then with GSK’s manufacturing division before moving to Marks & Spencer as the company’s first head of internal communication.

Alison Boothby is a freelance business writer specialising in change, engagement and topical workplace issues. She has worked with Comma Partners for the past three years offering marketing and editorial support throughout the year. Alison now works freelance providing copywriting, PR and general marketing communications support to growing


“Despite the high awareness of the importance – if not the value – of Emotional Intelligence, we are still not seeing much evidence of it in corporate life.”