“Build self-awareness by asking for feedback regularly”, Ruth Farrar of Sendero and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Build self-awareness by asking for feedback regularly — As an OCM professional, I did a lot of training facilitation early in my career. I learned to control my facial expressions and minimize physical distractions like swaying. As an executive, I learned that the control I worked so hard to master was off-putting in small-scale meetings. My lack […]

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Build self-awareness by asking for feedback regularly — As an OCM professional, I did a lot of training facilitation early in my career. I learned to control my facial expressions and minimize physical distractions like swaying. As an executive, I learned that the control I worked so hard to master was off-putting in small-scale meetings. My lack of “normal” expression and movement was perceived as sternness or even anger. People found it intimidating. I had no idea I was coming across that way and only learned it by asking for feedback.

As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewingRuth Farrar.

Ruth Farrar is the Chief Operations Officer of Sendero, a management consulting firm with expertise in Strategic Planning, Technology Enablement, and Organizational Effectiveness. Ruth started her career with a large, international management consulting firm as an Organizational Change Management consultant and has over 30 years of consulting and operations experience in various industries, including professional services, products, financial services, energy, and manufacturing. Working with Bret Farrar, Ruth helped found Sendero in 2004 and has since applied her consulting skills to support scaling the company, which has been named to the Inc. 5000 list for 10 consecutive years. Her responsibilities as COO include strategic planning, consulting and internal operations leadership, and organizational alignment with Sendero’s award-winning culture.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I’m the youngest of six children born in seven and a half years. Let that soak in…it was busy! Neither of my parents had college degrees until my mom went back to school once I reached middle school, but their intelligence was easy to see. They valued education and instilled the same in us. They also encouraged independence and responsibility, so we learned to navigate our world — chores, the neighborhood, school, our activities — early on. My siblings and I were pretty typical when it came to rivalries and alliances with each other. I don’t know if I was born wired to be diplomatic or if I developed it to survive those relationships, but I became the family peacemaker. For me, it was a happy childhood full of books, competitive swimming, deep friendships, and time with my extended Spanish-speaking family. Turning fifteen meant getting a job and saving for college, and I loved the freedom of having something that felt like my own. Because of the way I was raised, “adulting” was something I looked forward to.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

When I was in high school filling out college and scholarship applications, I found myself feeling frustrated that I didn’t have a single calling or burning passion for one career. My mom told me I was thinking about it wrong, that I should be grateful that I had many talents and had the ability to explore options. At the time, the advice didn’t feel helpful.

Fast forward to college when my dear friend, Deepak Srivastava, was at a fork in the road trying to decide his career direction: business or medicine? I didn’t know the answer, but I did know how to ask questions. For hours, I employed the Socratic method to help him come to his own conclusion and thank goodness he landed where he did. As a pediatric cardiologist, he personally (and miraculously) saved my best friend’s daughter’s life, and he is now the President of the Gladstone Institutes leading Nobel-prize winning medical research that saves countless lives.

The experience guiding Deepak’s thought process to medicine led me to ask myself the same questions, so I have to give Deepak partial credit with inspiring my decision to pursue a career in management consulting. The other credit goes to my mom. It turns out she was right, I needed to explore. As a consultant, you help solve a myriad of business problems with a variety of companies, so my career let me experience a wide array of things. Now, I’m fortunate to pour all that I learned into my own company, Sendero, the calling I wasn’t able to hear until I was ready for it.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Hands down, my husband is my biggest cheerleader, supporter, and motivator. It was his dream to build a company, but once we started Sendero, it became a shared passion. Bret challenges me and sees no limits to what I can do, both personally and professionally. I stepped away for a number of years to focus on raising our four children (including triplets), and when I hesitated to resume client-facing work, he pumped me up and reminded me of accomplishments in my career to help me believe in myself. He is the kind of life partner who, in the most positive way, makes you want to strive to be the best version of yourself.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I made a massive mistake early on in my career when I was the freshly minted supervisor of a project team comprised of consulting colleagues and clients. It was back in the day when formatting disks was a necessary task… but I accidentally formatted my computer’s hard drive instead. All of my programs and work was lost. I was mortified and afraid I’d get fired (or at least lose the supervisor role) but decided to confess to my new team and ask for help. They were amazing. They recovered everything (or at least most of it), and although they teased me a bit, they didn’t shame me or try to get me in trouble. Through that experience, I learned the power of vulnerability as a leader. I remain grateful to that team for their gracious and generous response.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

How you approach your job, career, and the people around you is more important than what you are doing at any given time. People will remember how you treated them more than what you did. That’s not to say your results don’t matter, but how you get them is at least as important. And the how is where Emotional Intelligence (EQ) can be a tremendous asset. Managing your emotions, being sensitive to the needs of others, asking for and valuing input, and being inclusive will make people like working with you and want to help you. Developing EQ will make you a better leader, and as an effective leader, you will be able to accomplish bigger things and make a more meaningful impact on the world.

Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Patrick Lencioni’s The Ideal Team Player articulated more clearly than I had ever seen how certain individual characteristics, or the lack of them, could make or break a team. With one of Sendero’s Core Values being Shared Success, being able to work well together is critical. In our company’s early years, we occasionally had issues and struggled to pinpoint why. Lencioni’s model made perfect sense and gave us not only a way to identify our issues so we could coach but also gave us the confidence to make a change if our coaching didn’t work. We evolved the concept and created observable behaviors associated with each of our five Core Values. Those behaviors make up the “how” that we expect from all of our employees. The assessment of how each person approaches their work is what we call their Culture Results, and it is equally weighted with “what” they do, their Business Results. I credit Lencioni for planting some of the seeds for that idea.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“Moderation in all things, including moderation.” My belief in this motto started after learning my best friend was bulimic. That discovery broke my heart for her and completely changed my approach to diet and nutrition. Over time, I extended the philosophy to everything in my life. While I’m passionate about being moderate and believe it’s generally a healthy approach to life — food, exercise, social activities, adult beverages, escapes — I also believe splurges are an important part of the mix. They can be good for the soul, mental health, or the heart. We need to be kind to ourselves and others and allow for a little excess now and then.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

One exciting project is building the infrastructure and processes to help our organization harness and access the decades of experience that lives in our consultants’ heads and on their laptops. We have an extremely supportive culture, and our people are very responsive when a “phone a friend” request show up in their emails, but we need to be more efficient. Easy access to curated, polished materials, logically organized learning materials, and lists of Subject Matter Experts at your fingertips will be revolutionary for us. It will be great for our employees as well as for our clients. It’s a massive change, and we are taking the efforts to manage it very seriously, primarily using Kotter’s 8 Steps. We are about two years into the effort, and I’m thrilled with our progress thus far.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers a bit about why you are an authority about Emotional Intelligence?

As the COO of a management consulting company that has grown 20–30% annually since its formation in 2004, EQ is a must-have competency. Consistent growth is energizing but making sure the company is prepared for successive growth stages requires organizational modifications and shifts — new processes, systems, and organizational structures — that can be hard on employees. As a leader, I have to be an effective change agent. Being able to connect with others and create positive social interactions is a prerequisite.

My background as an Organizational Change Management (OCM) consultant with one of the “Big 4” consulting firms prepared me well for this role. I understand the Kubler-Ross Change Curve and am well-versed in various OCM methodologies that help reduce the depth of the predictable drop in morale and productivity triggered by change. The approaches are research-based and proven, and EQ is an important element throughout. Because those methodologies focus on people and their productivity, they often get lumped into the realm of “soft skills” and are dismissed. What the naysayers miss, however, is that rejection of change is a failure that sets companies back. For successful change adoption, one of my passions, EQ, is essential.

For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what Emotional Intelligence is?

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand, and manage one’s own emotions and influence the emotions of others, enabling the achievement of desired results through productive interactions.

How is Emotional Intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?

Intelligence is about mental capacity: what you know, how quickly you learn, and how well you can remember. It’s about what’s in our brains, what we have the smarts to learn, create, and/or solve independently. It is an individualized internal trait related more to thinking than feeling and has minimal impact on interactions with others. Intelligence superstars who lack strong EQ can be geniuses in their field. With that profile, their value is likely to come predominantly from what they invent, solve, or produce independently.

EQ is about social acuity: what you perceive, how well you can read a room, and your ability to manage your own feelings and responses while being sensitive to the feelings and needs of others. EQ superstars with average intelligence can be social butterflies and/or effective leaders. With that profile, their value generally comes from coaxing the best from the people around them versus what they can create themselves.

Both EQ and IQ are important, and in combination are incredibly powerful.

Can you help explain a few reasons why Emotional Intelligence is such an important characteristic? Can you share a story or give some examples?

The smartest person in the room who finds connecting with others a challenge scales by one — they invent, solve, or produce what they can do on their own, partially because others may find them hard to work with. There are plenty of roles in business where that profile is an asset, and we’re all familiar with some creative, demanding geniuses who have been wildly successful. Typically, though, progressing in an organization calls for something more. For those with high EQ, strength in social connection enables them to harness the talents of others, scaling their ability to get things done. Their emotional responsiveness, eagerness to receive feedback and grow, ability to create and maintain a positive environment in which everyone feels valued and heard, and coaching skill strengthens their ability to lead.

On a travel assignment years ago, I was fortunate to work with two very intelligent managers who were near opposites regarding EQ. The engagement lead was difficult, negative, and nit-picky. He micromanaged and criticized without coaching the team on what he wanted to see differently. He was a dictator trying to get his way, and it didn’t feel good. Conversely, my direct manager acted as a member of the team, not above it. He empowered us to try out our ideas, was available when we struggled, and built up our confidence even when giving hard feedback. I remember one time being tasked with something bigger than I had done before: designing a curriculum. He sat with me and we “workshopped” it together. We didn’t have a whiteboard, so we used a pad of paper, and he explained as he sketched a rough outline of a picture, encouraging me to add to it, ask questions, and connect some dots. I left the meeting feeling like, “I’ve got this,” something I had never felt with the more senior leader. Their varying levels of EQ made all the difference.

Would you feel comfortable sharing a story or anecdote about how Emotional Intelligence has helped you in your life? We would love to hear about it.

As the parent of children with diverse identities, including one who as a teenager came out as transgendered, EQ has been critical over the past few years. It has come into play personally as I challenged my own biases and perceptions and worked on accepting and learning to celebrate things I didn’t expect. It has been instrumental as we worked as parents to create a positive environment of support, sharing, and openness. I have leaned on it in efforts to sensitively facilitate communication and education within our family and externally, including at our company. This experience has been a journey during which recognizing, understanding, and managing my own emotions was necessary to being able to influence the emotions of others. Loving my children and wanting them to live in a positive world that celebrates who they are making the effort of developing and flexing the EQ muscle worthwhile.

Can you share some specific examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help a person become more successful in the business world?

Technical and/or functional acumen are important but will only take you so far. Few jobs are about making sure everything stays the same. Being able to effectively manage change, including anticipating the predictable emotional responses of those who are impacted, becomes critical. With more significant responsibilities, larger teams, and activities or decisions that involve multiple teams or departments, your ability to succeed becomes increasingly dependent on the contributions and support of others. In that environment, the ability to connect, communicate, and influence is a prerequisite to success. EQ helps you be a more effective manager and leader, anticipate roadblocks, facilitate productive meetings, and steer teams or whole organizations through turbulent waters.

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have better relationships?

EQ is a social competency, so developing it should directly improve relationships. People with high EQ strive to be more interested than interesting. They listen, ask questions, and are genuinely curious. They pay attention to the mood and feelings of the people around them and know-how and when to adjust — flexing their communication style, deciding if it’s a good time to share information, and actively recognizing and valuing different perspectives. They model effective relationships and by doing so influence starting a “virtuous cycle” of positive interactions. They work to make their approach productive versus provocative and in doing so create an environment in which people are comfortable opening up and being vulnerable. EQ enhances a person’s communication ability, one of the key foundations to every relationship.

Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have more optimal mental health?

EQ gives people the ability to assess their own emotional state, and the confidence, motivation, and self-respect to prioritize getting to a healthy place. With self-awareness, they can monitor when they have the energy to flex to the needs of others and when they simply don’t. Self-management then allows them to respond appropriately — with sufficient energy reserves, an introvert can turn on the charm and work a room; when low on those reserves, that same person might need to retreat for some quiet time. On airplanes, adults have to put on their own oxygen mask first so they remain conscious to be able help their children put on theirs. Similarly, EQ helps you understand when you need to take care of yourself which then allows you to support others in more situations.

Ok. Wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you recommend five things that anyone can do to develop a greater degree of Emotional Intelligence? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Build self-awareness by asking for feedback regularly — As an OCM professional, I did a lot of training facilitation early in my career. I learned to control my facial expressions and minimize physical distractions like swaying. As an executive, I learned that the control I worked so hard to master was off-putting in small-scale meetings. My lack of “normal” expression and movement was perceived as sternness or even anger. People found it intimidating. I had no idea I was coming across that way and only learned it by asking for feedback.
  2. Up your communication game (channel, timing, message, and tone become increasingly important with sensitivity of information) — It’s so easy to dash off an email at work, but it’s often worth the time and energy to do a little more. In this year’s budget exercise, we had to take a hard look at sponsorships, some that we’ve done for years. Given our strategic direction, there were a few we thought we might not renew. Instead of sending an email, we spoke with the executives who had been involved with those organizations, explained the strategic shift, factored their input into the decisions, then personally reached out again to share where we landed and the rationale. Instead of hurting feelings or making anyone angry, our approach resulted in better answers and strengthened our collective understanding of how the sponsorships support our strategic direction.
  3. Practice silence, especially at emotionally charged times — Cicero famously said, “Silence is one of the great arts of conversation.” It’s tempting, however — and very common — to fill the void when conversation stalls. Force yourself to wait quietly, especially after asking an open-ended question, and you’ll be amazed at what you learn. Have a client who’s undermining your project? Maybe he is nervous that the changes will eliminate his job. Get him to open up, and you might find yourself with a new ally once he understands the actual direction. Facing an angry colleague? Stay calm, use a practiced phrase like, “Tell me more about that,” and then be quiet even if it gets uncomfortable. Few people can stand silence, so you’re likely to get to the bottom of the issue.
  4. Practice perspective-shifting (look at an issue through a different lens) — Over the course of the pandemic, our CEO has been sending all-company emails frequently to provide updates, address concerns, and answer questions. Each message goes through multiple reviews in which we try to look at the information from different perspectives. The reviews have been invaluable. A junior consultant might read news of improving business conditions to mean all is now well and there will be a big bonus, whereas a Senior Manager might interpret it very differently. Through our extensive review process using various employees’ perspectives, we’ve done a good job of getting the right messages across.
  5. Develop curiosity (ask questions to learn what is important to others, their concerns) — Last year, we announced a change to Sendero’s go-to-market strategy. We anticipated that our management team, especially experienced hires, might have some preconceived notions about our plans, so we took several opportunities to open the floor for questions and discussion. The process allowed us to refine our approach to address their concerns and also surfaced key messages that have been important in helping our more junior employees understand our direction.

Do you think our educational system can do a better job at cultivating Emotional Intelligence? What specific recommendations would you make for schools to help students cultivate Emotional Intelligence?

Yes, although I don’t want to ask teachers to do more — they are already superheroes! Instead, I think there are opportunities to rebalance in some key ways. Our current environment incentivizes “teaching to the test”, and we are losing opportunities for interaction that help develop social skills. I’d like to see less focus on rote learning and more on project-based work, liberal arts, and the development of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management in the curriculum.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

EQ has the potential to radically improve the tenor and tone of much of the content on social media. If more social media users took the time to listen and value other perspectives instead of shouting obscenities into the digital universe, chose to be uplifting and positive instead of angry and destructive, offered supportive messages instead of trolling perceived enemies, our world could be transformed. Social media is unbelievably powerful. It can be a critical connector, a source of amusement or entertainment, and even the impetus for political movements. Can you imagine what good could be accomplished if that power was positively directed universally?

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I’m a big fan of Krys Boyd, host of NPR’s Think. She comes to each show extremely well prepared, asks thought-provoking questions, listens deeply to her guest’s answers, and turns each interview into a true conversation. She models the kind of respectful dialogue I crave. It’s a little intimidating that she is so incredibly well-read, but her generous approach to conversation gives me confidence it would be both enjoyable and enlightening. I learn a lot from listening to her on the radio and think I would learn even more in person.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can sign up for our Newsletter on our website, linked at the beginning of the article, to learn more about our work and our consulting expertise. Additionally, we actively share our insights on LinkedIn; follow us to stay up to date on the latest from Sendero.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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