Jen Shirkani: An interview by Bob Morris

ShirkaniJen Shirkani shares examples from her over 20 years of experience as a learning and development specialist and executive coach at her speaking events, bringing relevant and practical examples to life. She is as comfortable speaking at large venues as she is with intimate groups for a corporate retreat. As a sought-after speaker, she provides insight into human dynamics in a humorous and engaging way. Her specialty topic of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is presented from a leadership perspective filled with practical strategies and immediately useable tips. Jen has worked with organizations from the Fortune 50 ($40B) to family-owned entities specializing in the application of Emotional Intelligence. She holds a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership.

She is certified in several assessments and has administered over 1,500 Emotional Intelligence assessments to employees in organizations across the United States. Her corporate career includes learning and development roles at specialty retailer Nordstrom, Select Comfort (the Sleep Number Bed), and Bergen Brunswig (Good Neighbor Pharmacy). She has also been certified in programs by Franklin Covey, Achieve Global, and the TRACOM Group. In addition to her corporate speaking events, Jen has also been a featured speaker at over 35 association conferences.

Her latest book, EGO vs. EQ: How Top Leaders Beat 8 Ego Traps with Emotional Intelligence, was published by bibliomotion books + media (October 2013).

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Morris: Before discussing Ego vs. EQ, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Shirkani: The greatest influencer on my personal growth is one of my best friend’s, Faith. She has always pushed me out of my comfort zone, given me honest feedback, encouraged me to learn lessons from hardship, and stood by me even when at my worst.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Shirkani: My professional development is always evolving. I learn from every engagement I do about the human business condition. I am so lucky that I have the ability to work in a variety of industries, across the US so I am able to learn different approaches, different challenges and understand the collective ups and downs of employees at all levels.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Shirkani: Like many small business owners I struggle with what business to take and not take. In lean times, I can convince myself that any work is good work. Years ago, I found myself failing at an engagement with a very large national athletic shoe company. I kept trying to succeed to the best of my abilities but it was clear to all of us that I was not cutting it. I had a tough meeting with the national vice president of sales who told me I was the worst meeting planner he had ever worked with. I could do nothing but agree with him, mostly because I am not a meeting planner! I was also not trying to be a meeting planner or hired to be one but clearly I had gotten so far off course as a consultant this was the wake-up call I needed to show me how far in the weeds I had gotten. I cried in my car the whole way home. I decided that day that I would not let anyone in my firm take work ever again that we were not fully qualified to do or passionate about, no matter how broke we got. I changed the course of our company for the better from that day on.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Shirkani: Oh please, I was the most cocky, arrogant kid there was! I don’t know why I thought back then that I was so smart but looking back at some of the things I did – talk about ego not EQ! I don’t know how people put up with me. Even going back as recently as ten years ago, or for that matter last week, I cringe thinking about some of the self-involved and ridiculous things I have said and done.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Shirkani: I really enjoyed both the series and the book “John Adams”. There are so many lessons within it about leadership during hardship and chaos. It demonstrates how influence, resiliency, conflict, vision, and teamwork can change the world. I was moved to tears when I found out that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the exact same day…and it was Independence day.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Shirkani: This is a great quote and gets to the heart of knowing your team well. Employee engagement requires an emotional connection between employees and their organization, which requires us leaders to make an emotional investment in them. It allows us to recognize their motivations and drives, create an environment to bring it out in them, and then hurry up and get out of their way.

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Shirkani: I love this quote! I like to tell people that to be more effective does not require a complete redesign of who they are. Instead, small adjustments can be made that come with a huge impact.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Shirkani: I completely agree. People like feeling that they can relate to someone else in the same situation. I am working to get comfortable sharing my own stories, especially those of hardship or failure. Talking about great books, Brené Brown is an amazing author and speaker on vulnerability. She says vulnerability is the first thing we look for in others but the last thing we want people to see in us. So true.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

Shirkani: I believe that the shift in the average age of the workforce to a younger generation will be the biggest challenge facing CEO’s who are typically two decades (or more) older. recently reported that 68% of CEO’s have no presence on social media. That’s a big number and their own personal discomfort with it often influences their company policies and practices. It is pretty short sighted to ignore or block sites that connect people to resources, peer groups, industry news and discussions, and best practice sharing. This is one example of how CEO’s will need to challenge their own comfort zones in many things in order to retain and engage top talent.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Ego vs. EQ. When and why did you decide to write it?

Shirkani: I decided to write this book in the Spring of 2012. I have been passionate about the principles of emotional intelligence (EQ) for more than a decade and could see both the power it brought to leaders who demonstrated it but also their challenges to maintain it. I wanted to first identify the pitfalls that seemed particularly prevalent for executives and business owners and then give them some practical and easy tips to follow to prevent or minimize them.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Shirkani: I am very pleased with the final product, and I did have help writing and editing it. And what I hear from readers is that they like the call out boxes and the way the chapters are formatted. It was also a goal of mine to write chapters that could be read individually without needing to read everything before or after them. I know leaders are busy and so I wanted a book that could be skimmed, used as a resource, and short enough to read on a flight.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a leader with high EQ?

Shirkani: Leaders with high EQ can communicate with others effectively, provide balanced feedback, lead others through ambiguity, use humor to build rapport, read and respond to the emotional needs of others and remain optimistic even in the face of difficulty. These leaders can emotionally and mentally plug into others and can read the situation at hand and behave accordingly to get the best results for everyone.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read your brilliant book, you identify and discuss eight “traps” that leaders should “sidestep when ruling the mountaintop.” Why is each so toxic and what “EQ antidote” do you suggest? First, Ignoring the feedback you don’t like

Shirkani: It’s not easy for any of us to hear feedback we don’t like or don’t want to believe about ourselves. And as you ascend in your career, the feedback faucet slowly closes so it’s easy to lose your grounding and perspective on how effective you really are. I encourage every leader to participate in a feedback survey called “a 360” which is a way to get feedback from multiple people, 360 degrees around you. I also recommend that they hire an executive coach.

Morris: Believing your technical skills trump your leadership skills

Shirkani: Too often, the technical expertise you needed as an individual contributor or middle manager (accounting skills, marketing skills, software programming skills) become less and less important as you grow in your leadership responsibilities. Thinking that it’s okay to be an average leader because you are the smartest person in the room will eventually lead to trouble. It’s vital for leaders to recognize the urge to be the first to solve a problem and get better at recognizing the situations when your leadership matters more than your expertise.

Morris: Surrounding yourself with more of you

Shirkani: It’s easy to be wowed by someone you are interviewing who thinks and acts in similar ways. You think, “This person would fit in well” or “I could work well with this person” and as tempting as it is to build a team of those people, be careful. Too much of the same thinking leads to people the least likely to challenge you, bring provocative ideas, or catch the balls you may drop. We know that diversity of thought and creative offerings are what keep organizations alive. Leaders should hire to their weaknesses, appreciate challengers, and don’t fall victim to gut decision making when it comes to hiring or promotions. And, most importantly, hire employees who have high emotional intelligence.

Morris: Not letting go of control

Shirkani: This is a trap many executives fall into and business owners probably even more. They struggle with delegation and giving up decision making power. They want final say on most things and it creates bottlenecks, wasted productivity and sends a loud message to employees, “You can’t be trusted.” To avoid this trap, remember that your way is not the only way and letting go may lead to surprising new innovations. Be real about how much involvement you should really have. If you have given people budgets, let them work within them and stay out of it.

Morris: Being blind to your downstream impact

Shirkani: Some of your readers may be able to relate to having a “submarine boss”. One who is silent for a period of time then surfaces in a burst of energy and knocks every other boat out of the water. Or the executive who suffers from “initiative du jour” related more to the last HBR article they just read than a planned strategic initiative. It may also appear as executive attention deficit disorder. In fact, those diagnosed clinically with ADHD are 300% more likely to start their own business so we likely have a ton of entrepreneurs out there who fall victim to this trap. Leaders can prevent the damage of being blind to their impact by being cognizant of making change, thinking through why it is important and what the likely impact will be on the troops. They also need to avoid level jumping – skipping past direct reports and making requests to those further down the chain of command knowing they will get something done for them.

Morris: Underestimating how much you are being watched

Shirkani: As a top-level leader or founder, every move you make is being watched. If you don’t like the way people act in your organization, you should take a long look in the mirror. This trap can play out for the leader who says one thing but role models all the wrong behaviors or it can play out in an amplification of what the leader notices…and also what they don’t notice. Few leaders realize how what they don’t respond to sends as strong as a message as what they do respond to. In order to avoid this trap, leaders must be their own relentless quality inspector and watch for signs of exempt thinking (“this doesn’t apply to me”) or mixed messages they may be sending.

Morris: Losing touch with the frontline experience

Shirkani: The average executive has an office. Most employees have cubicles. The average executive has support staff. Most employees don’t. According to the Economics Policy Institute, in 2011, CEO’s made 231 times as much as an average employee. Just the economics alone yield a whole different life experience. One of my favorite shows is “Undercover Boss” on CBS. It shows real life CEO’s working inside their organizations to see how life is really lived as a front line employee. It is eye opening and humbling to most brave enough to do it. It is powerful to work side by side with employees earning your lowest pay band trying to implement those decisions you made back in the mahogany office.

Morris: Relapsing back to your old ways

Shirkani: Once executives make a positive change in their leadership effectiveness it can be a credibility killer to see them slide back into old ego-driven ways. One example of this is thinking some audiences are worthy of your best efforts while others, in your view, are not. It can look like a turning off and on of the skills, leaving people thinking, “She knows how to be more flexible, right now she’s choosing not to be.” It is important for leaders to not feel that EQ development is an activity to check off on a list. Instead, the minute you let your guard down, ego will sneak back into the driver’s seat.

Morris: I agree with you that leaders cannot control everything that happens to them but they can control how they respond to developments, especially unpleasant ones. Here’s my question: Why is EQ so essential to an effective response?

Shirkani: EQ is what allows us to recognize our immediate reactions and impulses upon hearing bad news. It gives you the insight to look around and gather some situational data – who else does this impact? How many people know about this? Where am I and who is within earshot? And then it gives us the power to control our behavior to act in mature, rational, sensible ways. It helps us keep things in perspective and consider the long term consequences of acting in anger or haste.

Morris: I also agree with you that “the little things really matter” when a leader manages ego with EQ. Please cite some specific examples of such “little things.”

Shirkani: Little things that leaders with high EQ do include remembering birthdays and company anniversaries, personally showing appreciation for employees who go the extra mile, spend casual time (coffee, lunch, hallway time) with employees at all levels, go to employee offices instead of asking people to come to them.

Morris: During both of my interviews of Jim Collins, he stressed this point: That all great (i.e. Level 5) leaders tend to be personally humble when praised but, at the same time, immensely proud of the business success that they and their associates have achieved together to reach “the mountaintop.” Presumably you agree.

Shirkani: Absolutely. All of Jim’s examples of Level 5 leaders have done an excellent job with the delicate balancing act of ego and EQ. Some ego is vital but L5 leaders do not let pride or ego get the way, instead recognizing that they are the conductor, not the rock star.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Ego vs. EQ and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Shirkani: It’s a noble undertaking. And the first thing I would prescribe is patience. It will not happen overnight, depending on what condition the culture is presently in. But stick with it and don’t give up even if you don’t see the results you want immediately. Start with the executive team (even if it’s only two of you) and do the self-awareness work by getting meaningful feedback. Identify what hallmarks of your ideal culture look like and assess if your current compensation and recognition programs are directly aligned. The fastest way to change behavior in an organization is to start financially rewarding “good” behavior. I am a big proponent of the motivation theories in Drive, by Dan Pink so money will not be the only answer. But I also see organizations who compensate employees to do the exact opposite of what they really want so you have to make sure you aren’t doing that, first thing.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Ego vs. EQ, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Shirkani: I have seen and heard both not letting go of control and being blind to your downstream impact as big temptations for small business owners. I know most start by doing it all, in fact I too am a small business owner and have to do it all from accounting to marketing. In many ways, they still see themselves as that start-up entrepreneur who has to keep a watchful eye on every facet of the business. They don’t see themselves differently as their growth occurs and forget that they don’t have to be micromanaging anymore. They probably started with few to no formal procedures and little structure so they were accustomed to an anything goes chain of command. Level jumping or last minute changes can be much more disruptive as their company matures. Their leadership style must mature too.

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Jen cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Ego vs. EQ link

Jen’s website link

Penumbra Group link

TAGs: Jen Shirkani: An interview by Bob Morris, Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Oscar Wilde, Emotional Intelligence, MHS Emotional Intelligence assessment (EQi) Hay Group Emotional Competence Inventories (ECI/ESCI), Nordstrom, Select Comfort (the Sleep Number Bed), Bergen Brunswig, Jim Colkins, Level 5 Leaders, Franklin Covey, Achieve Global, the TRACOM Group, EGO vs. EQ: How Top Leaders Beat 8 Ego Traps with Emotional Intelligence, bibliomotion books + media

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