Emotional Intelligence allows you to have important conversations with the people you’re working with, whether it’s setting commitments in the beginning or renegotiating those commitments as you move forward. It really helps you set a foundation for how you work with other people in the workplace, which is key. A second thing, is that part of Emotional Intelligence is also how you manage yourself.
As a part of our series about “Emotional Intelligence, I had the pleasure of interviewingJo Ilfeld PhD.
Jo Ilfeld,PhD is an executive leadership coach and CEO and founder of Incite To Leadership, a premier Bay-Area leadership coaching and consulting company. Incite To Leadership has worked with well-known brands and companies throughout the Bay Area and the world including eBay, The SF Giants, Genentech, Clorox, and Gilead. Jo began as a small business entrepreneur who grew her first business into a million-dollar company. Inspired by her own leadership journey, Jo uses her experience to help other company leaders align their executive teams for outsize results. Jo is a graduate of Yale College and holds a PhD in Business from UC Berkeley.
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 grew up in Chicago and my Dad was a lawyer and university administrator. Every night he would come home and tell my Mom, a psychologist stories about which groups were fighting, what negotiations he brokered, and what the biggest philosophical debates about education were on campus. I felt like, listening to these stories that I was raised to think about what matters to people at work and how to bridge differences. Between my Dad the lawyer and my Mom the therapist, I well well trained in navigating both the logical and emotional parts that make up Emotional Intelligence.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
Before becoming an executive coach, I got my PhD in business. After finishing my PhD, I realized that I didn’t want to pursue an academic career, which, at the time was a hard decision to make. I decided I needed to take a breather before starting a new career and instead started an entrepreneurial journey with a friend, building and growing an online business, scaling it well beyond our initial expectations. One morning, sitting doing work in a café and peeling my hard-boiled egg for my quick breakfast on the run, I had this moment of epiphany. I realized I didn’t want to keep running the business, I could go on and do something else. For me, that was a moment of Emotional Intelligence, where I truly listened to that inner voice inside me, instead of doing what was easiest, which was to keep building and scaling the business. After consulting with my business partner, we both decided we would sell the business, which we successfully did together. And from there, I ended up moving into executive leadership coaching. I love using a lot of the leadership lessons that I learned both from getting my PhD in business, as well as from leading my own business. I really want to help other leaders write their own rules that work for them and their companies, the way I was able to do successfully in my career.
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?
When I was starting my coach training, I was referred to an executive at Google. I felt immediately intimidated and like I wasn’t experienced to coach a senior executive. I worried I wouldn’t be able to connect with them and they would see me as a fraud. My coaching mentor, Robin, spent one of the most enlightening conversations with me walking me through how we were both people. That I didn’t need to have the same background as someone I coached to be able to work with them on their biggest self-development and career-development issues. That was a mind-blowing idea to me at the time — that I didn’t have to feel inferior because of career position since we shared common humanity.
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?
When I was working as a consultant after college, I had to take a plane down from SF to LA for a day-long-business trip. Keep in mind this is pre-9/11 and pre-Uber. I’m not even sure I had a cell-phone back then. When I got to the airport, I realized I had left my wallet back at my apartment and if I turned around, I would miss my flight and my client meetings in LA. I talked to the ticketing agents about what had happened and they were kind of enough to issue me my boarding passes both ways so I didn’t need to show ID in LA to get my boarding pass. At this point there was security before the gates but you didn’t need to show ID. Once I got on my flight, I started chatting up my seat mate and told him all about my quandry. He offered to lend me 40 dollars for the day which I gladly took, along with his business card to pay him back. I used the money to get a cab to my meeting location, I ate a “light” lunch which I paid for in cash and when I arrived home, I had was able to get my car out of SFO parking lot with an IOU. Besides feeling on the edge of failure all day long, I was able to persuade people to help me on my quest of successfully attending this meeting. The lesson I took from this is how much people want to help you be successful but you need to be clear exactly how each person can help you. If I had gone to the customer service agent and laid out my whole problem, she couldn’t have fixed that, but she could solve the problem of getting me on two flights to and from LA. Similarly, my seat mate could help me solve my money issue. In retrospect, it was a good lesson in the importance of clarity as well as determination and grit.
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?
I know I’m copying a bit of Steve Jobs here but I have really resonated with his observation that the dots only make sense in retrospect. As I was pursuing my career, I pursued things that fascinated me intellectually, my PhD, and captured my heart, entrepreneurship. I found other things that didn’t resonate for me at all. When I left my PhD and stepped into entrepreneurship, I felt like I was taking a sharp left turn. Yet that left turn led me eventually towards coaching. So when I reflect back, it’s the left turns and the unexpected leaps I took, the ones that didn’t make logical sense given my particular background, that have helped me find my true calling. And yes, when I look back, now they make sense but at the time they felt like true departures from a safe and known path.
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?
It was actually an e-course. When I was transitioning out of selling my first company, a friend invited me to participate in a nine-month long online class on “Raising Happiness” about how to raise resilient and thriving children done by Christine Carter at the UC Berkeley Greater Good center. The course heavily drew on research, which I love, and focused on what makes us, and our kids happier and how do we cultivate and build those habits. That course inspired me to start on my coaching journey because I saw that I loved the intersection of research and practice of human behavior and how we can use that research to actually make our lives better by putting it into action and holding ourselves accountable to making these positive changes.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
― Viktor E. Frankl
In my mind this is what is at the heart of Emotional Intelligence and coaching. It’s working with ourselves, and our clients to find that small bit of space between something happening TO us, and how we respond. If we respond too quickly, it’s likely an automatic brain response rather than a thought-out response. If, through working on our own EQ and observing how we tend to respond, we can build in a pause, that pause creates the whole platform for us to choose differently, and hopefully smarter, as we observe the responses we get to our actions and modify accordingly. Here’s an example: If every time my client sends me an email, I jump to respond, I’m in reactive mode believing that my value comes from timeliness. If my client sends me an email and I pause first, I might notice that the client says this isn’t urgent, or that I actually am not sure what my clients means and I have more questions before I can give an answer. Or I might see that the client sent me an email five minutes later, which is further up in my inbox, where they realized the question was irrelevant. Just giving myself a pause before answering opens up many more potential ways I can CHOOSE to respond.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I’m actually developing a model for how teams can problem solve together in complexity right now. This is really exciting to me because COVID has shown all of us, that the world is a lot more complex and interconnected than many of us realized. First having enough testing supplies and PPE was an issue: now that’s an issue as well as how to develop and rapidly distribute new vaccines. The companies I work with are facing problems that don’t have easy answers. We can’t just sit down with our executive team, vote on our next path forward and move on. We need to examine data with holes, make assumptions and question each other’s assumptions in order to arrive at thoughtful next steps. And teams often need help working together to think, question and operate in this new way that accounts for a lot of the messiness in the world around us.
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 an executive leadership coach and professor of Leadership Intelligence at Sonoma State University School of Business, I spend my life helping my clients and MBA students learn what Emotional Intelligence is, where they have EQ strengths and growth areas, and how to develop EQ in those areas that will be most beneficial to them in achieving their goals, standing out in the work place, and creating the experience of the life they want to be living.
For the benefit of our readers, can you help to define what Emotional Intelligence is?
Emotional Intelligence, in my perspective, is the understanding of the overlap between your self-knowledge, your knowledge of others so that you understand both how you impact others as well as how others impact you, and your capacity for choosing your response in any given moment, rather than reacting impulsively or out of habit.
How is Emotional Intelligence different from what we normally refer to as intelligence?
In my mind both Emotional Intelligence and intelligence are measures of how easily we can learn. Emotional intelligence refers to how easily you can learn about yourself and others and then respond using that knowledge while intelligence is often mapped to how easily you can learn concepts like reading, mathematics, etc.
Can you help explain a few reasons why Emotional Intelligence is such an important characteristic? Can you share a story or give some examples?
One of the reasons why Emotional Intelligence is such an important skill in the workplace these days is because most of us aren’t only doing projects on our own, we’re not just individual contributors solving a problem without interaction, unless maybe you’re an academic, most of us are have to work with other people to accomplish much larger goals. So it’s important to learn to collaborate and to influence others. How do you suggest something to someone? How do you listen to and respond to their ideas? To do most projects well, you need to figure out what’s most important to people, whether it’s your internal stakeholders in the company, or to your customers, and what people are really telling you. Emotional intelligence is one of the best skills that we know of to help you translate what people are asking you for or telling you into how you can help them. One of my clients had incredible people skills but was a bit timid in asking others for what she needed. We’ll call her Katrina. Katrina was asked to spearhead a very important automation project within her company to save the company millions of dollars. Using her Emotional Intelligence, Katrina was able to enlist a lot of diverse stakeholders throughout the organization to commit resources and people time to the project. But that was just the beginning. Once she started working with this cross-functional team, Katrina needed to steel herself to make bold asks of the team and be very clear what she needed and by when. It wasn’t enough for Katrina to get initial buy-in for the project, each ask of her team’s most precious resource — time and attention — was another time she had to interact with her team and influence them throughout the collaboration. In the end the team delivered a successful project in 100 days, a company record! And it was because Katrina realized that it wasn’t enough to get verbal buy-in at the beginning, the hard EQ work was in constantly negotiating with team members for their continued hard work on and bandwidth for a project where she wasn’t their manager and this wasn’t their top priority. Part of Emotional Intelligence is listening to the feedback that you’re getting, and then responding to it in varied ways to find the motivation that works for different types of team members you’re working with.
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.
When I started at my first job, I was 21 and really enthusiastic. I was excited to be doing the work I was doing. And yet I had a couple of early missteps: I sent a funny joke to the whole office listserve that was only for very important things. I was quickly schooled on how and why that was not appropriate to do. In many ways, part of Emotional Intelligence is being able to hear feedback, and understand what you need to do differently. And what it really taught me is that I couldn’t treat these work relationships the same way I treated friends or people I worked together with at college; these were different professional relationships. I needed to have a different understanding of how to interact with people in this professional way. When I came into the workplace, I also needed to increase my EQ of how to have professional conversations and how to make professional commitments. A second story at this same job was when I made a promise to a partner about a deliverable and then got swamped with another project I was on and had to face the consequences of not meeting expectations. I think the Emotional Intelligence I had built up by then was helpful in helping me navigate conflicting commitments, because understanding what’s important for others, as well as what’s important to you, helps you to have frank conversations with others about what these commitments are, and how to renegotiate them in the face of unexpected project work. Emotional intelligence is not about always making everyone happy, but it is crucial to how you can honor and maintain the relationship while still having a tough dialogue.
Can you share some specific examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help a person become more successful in the business world?
Emotional Intelligence allows you to have important conversations with the people you’re working with, whether it’s setting commitments in the beginning or renegotiating those commitments as you move forward. It really helps you set a foundation for how you work with other people in the workplace, which is key. A second thing, is that part of Emotional Intelligence is also how you manage yourself. A lot of people, especially now with COVID, have stress and fears about the economy, as well as all the other normal stressors that are going on. If you can’t manage your own stress, and you start becoming impatient with others you work with, or — I hope this wouldn’t happen — start yelling at others you work with, that’s a sign that you are not doing a good job regulating your own emotional state. An important part of relating well to others, is both understanding what’s going on for them as well as what’s going on for you. So even if you’re stressed, even if you’re overwhelmed, how do you handle that internally so it’s not seeping into your other relationships. And as we all know, relationships are at the heart of most business interactions.
I think the other thing that’s important about Emotional Intelligence is that as we become more aware of how we read ourselves and how we read others, our gut instinct actually becomes more believable, more reliable. And what I mean by that is, I think that often, if we don’t know understand our reactions very well, then it’s hard to know if we have a gut feeling if we should believe it or not. But when we start to understand what the signals are that other people are giving us, what are the signals we’re feeling inside when we think about taking a new job or a new role, we can start to read those signals as helpful information to rely on for better decisions, another hallmark of good leadership.
Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have better relationships?
Emotional intelligence can help us pick up on cues from those around us. So when you’re speaking to a Zoom meeting and you notice someone’s face in the corner bunching up, using your EQ you can start to decipher whether they don’t like your idea, they’re confused about your idea, or perhaps their child is just whining in the background. And if you can’t figure it out, good EQ helps you ask the right question, without being accusatory to check in with your colleague before making a rash assumption.
Another way Emotional Intelligence can help your relationships was alluded to above. If you know you have a lot of stress, once you realize that, you can start to design ways to interact with people so you don’t ruin your relationships. Maybe you ask your spouse for the night off doing the dishes so you can relax a bit more. Maybe you tell your kids that you’re about to get a headache so can they keep it down before yelling at them that they’re too loud. Knowing your emotional state can help you set helpful boundaries with others before you’re reacting impulsively.
Lastly, people want to be understood in their relationships. You may read something on someone’s face or in their body language, and you then may pause, and take the time to inquire how they are doing. That builds better relationships because you are demonstrating that you notice what’s happening for them, and you care enough to inquire about it.
Can you share a few examples of how Emotional Intelligence can help people have more optimal mental health?
As some of us know, there is a powerful mind-body connection. The mind-body connection is when people are tapped into themselves enough to notice when their body is giving them signals that have meaning. They then can interpret those signals in their mind. So whether your body is telling you it’s tired, it’s full, it has a lot of energy and needs to move more, those would be examples of how your body can signal certain things and how your mind could interpret those messages. Part of Emotional Intelligence is tapping into your personal mind-body connection to get better at interpreting your body’s signals. Perhaps you notice that some days you have a little pain and pressure behind your eyes. When you’re paying attention that signals that you need to go to bed earlier that night because you are not fully caught up on sleep. Similarly, when you’re tapped into that mind-body connection, you might be eating some yummy birthday cake, and then realize, actually, your stomach feels overfull and you feel nausea as you eat a third slice; it would probably be better to stop after the first slice in the future. Similarly, you might notice that after you go for a workout, how much more energized you felt that morning, and how much more optimistic you felt as well. When we practice healthy behaviors and then take the time and attention to notice how it changes our body sensations and attitudes towards the world, that’s one way you can use Emotional Intelligence to develop healthier habits and maintain them.
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.
The first thing I recommend my executive clients do is a check-in with yourself in the morning, what do you really need today? And what you need could be a workout or to handle a really important to-do that you’ve been avoiding that’s causing you more stress. Just taking a few minutes in the morning to reflect and write down what are the most important things to accomplish in the day can actually give you better EQ because it focuses you and helps you to self-manage about what YOUR most important priorities are before you open your email to see everyone else’s priorities for you that day. One resource I use and recommend to my clients is the 5-minute journal. I write down 3 things I’m grateful for and 3 top priorities for the day. Then at the end of the day I can observe how many of them I actually accomplished and if not, what I could improve for the next day.
The second thing I recommend to people, is that when you’re on a zoom call, or in person meetings, when we start doing those again, that you don’t just listen to what people are saying, but you listen to their tone of voice and notice their body language while they’re speaking. What we know is that about 90% of the information that we get from people comes through nonverbal cues like tone of voice and body language. If you’re just paying attention to what people are saying, you’re really missing 90% of their message. One easy trick for virtual meetings is to switch to gallery view and start noticing the expressions of the people in the Zoom room with you. You can see people’s expressions while you, or a colleague, is talking about an idea. Notice how others are responding to what’s being said by your colleagues. You’ll learn a lot more about what they really think about an idea than what they might be saying.
Number three is that before you get on any video call, or walk into any meeting, and this is what I recommend to all the executives I work with, is that you take a momentary pause. As your computer is connecting to the meeting, just close your eyes and take three deep, lung capacity breaths. Make sure to do a longer exhale than inhale. A lot of times during your day, you have very stressful meetings, reports, emails and your stress level can just keep rising throughout the workday. When you take those three deep breaths before your next meeting, it acts as a mini-reset for your body, so you can come back to a baseline level of calm, before going into a new meeting.
If tip two was to notice others, for number four, start noticing yourself during meetings as if you were observing yourself on TV. Do you look engaged? Are you speaking over people? Interrupting anyone? Notice how many times you speak versus how many times other people speak, are you taking up more oxygen in the room than others or you barely contributing to this meeting, such that people are wondering why you’re there. I assigned one of my execs to start keeping what Google calls a turn tracker. When a meeting starts she quickly notes all the names of who is in the meeting. Then every single time someone talks, she puts a tic by their name. That way she notices whether she spoke too much, or too little. She also realizes who else might not be speaking up so she knows to ask their opinion and invite them to talk so she has the full spectrum of responses.
Finally, one last great Emotional Intelligence practice you can do is to start listening for what other people are saying that is really valuable, and amplify what they’re saying. For instance, when it’s your turn to speak, don’t suggest your own variation of what’s being discussed, instead point to another person’s argument that you agree with. “I really like what Jannell had to say and her perspective is valuable coming from the sales team. Whatever solution we decide on, we’ll need to make sure that the sales team is on board to enact it so this seems like a great place to start.” That way you don’t have to feel you are coming up with your own perspective to show value, instead part of your value is in amplifying good ideas and necessary perspectives. That’s also a great way to cultivate people who are then more willing to amplify your perspective later on, because you’ve supported them.
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?
Our educational system can do a much better job of cultivating Emotional Intelligence. There are a lot of countries, especially Scandanavian countries who do a much better job of it. They give kids much more recess time. I was mentioning earlier about how pauses can help you come back to your center. Similarly, that time on the playground allows kids to release a lot of the stress of the day from sitting in class and having to focus. What researchers have found is that kids that have more of that time on the playground, do better on standardized testing. So it isn’t a case of playtime taking away from what kids are learning. It actually helps! The other thing that some schools are doing successfully, though not enough schools, is to work with kids on mindfulness, because mindfulness becomes the basis for impulse control. We know that kids who have better impulse control do better in school, because a lot of making it through tests and homework is managing your impulses. So cultivating mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence at younger ages helps kids be more successful later on in their academic careers.
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.
The movement I would inspire is “No Bad Bosses!” I hear so many stories from incredibly talented people who left organizations, where initially they were thriving, but then got a bad boss and couldn’t stay any longer. A bad boss can be someone who doesn’t take the time to get to know and invest in the development of their people, someone who doesn’t have good Emotional Intelligence themselves, or someone who never invests in building up the skillsets of a good manager and leader. I feel like not only do organizations lose a lot of their great high potentials due to bad bosses, but they also sour people on the workforce in general. A bad boss can have people doubting their own competence, doubting their own intelligence, even doubting whether they want to be working. Whereas good bosses help high potentials stay in the workplace, they promote a lot more diversity, equity and inclusion by helping individual employees shape their paths, and they also smash the glass ceiling because they make it easier for women to manage having a career and having a family at the same time. Many of the executives who come and work with me on their leadership skills have gotten some harsh feedback on their skills but what differentiates them is that they are investing their time and energy on growing and changing and are not willing to settle for being a bad boss.
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 would have to say Brene Brown. I’m sure that that is not dissimilar from a lot of people, especially women who read this column. One reason that I would most love to connect with Brene Brown, besides her sense of humor which is just so funny, is that I feel like she is an amazing role model of a woman who has managed to be at the top of her career while setting good boundaries around family time, and what she is and is not willing to do for others. To be frank, that’s something I still struggle with as a working mom with three kids and I would love to hear her perspective. And it’s something that a lot of my successful female executive clients struggle with as well, that feeling of being pulled in all directions. It seems to me, at least from reading her books and hearing her podcasts that Brene has a lot of wisdom to share on how to navigate through good boundary setting for others, and for yourself.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I have a monthly email newsletter you can sign-up for my website www.incitetoleadership.com where I regularly share articles I’ve written as well as short 2 minute “learning snacks” videos on one EQ concept.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.