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Executive Coach: In Career Advancement, Perception Is Reality

CIOs can increase their promotion potential by sharpening their emotional intelligence skills.

Your boss has good reason to encourage you to strengthen your emotional intelligence skills. Actually, she has three of them.

Getting that promotion. The first (and most important) reason is to increase your potential for promotion. I am coaching two clients who are being groomed for advancement, and their bosses have focused on the need for these executives to sharpen their emotional intelligence quotient, or EQ. In one case, a client we'll call Sandra was described by her boss as a "lightening rod" during meetings. This VP reacts too quickly and gets defensive with her colleagues, which feeds the perception that she is unapproachable and inflexible. She recognizes that she is being hijacked by her feelings rather than responding thoughtfully. She is developing two EQ competencies: emotional self-awareness and self-control.

Another client, a top performer we'll call Jack, is being considered for a CEO role that demands frequent interaction with his company's board of directors. His boss is concerned about Jack's disengaged body language; during board meetings, he slumps in his chair with his arms folded and seems impatient, which undermines his credibility. But he doesn't yet recognize how body language affects those around him. So we're working to help Jack see his board as a client, not an adversary, and to become aware of his impact on others and how that influence is critical to his leadership effectiveness.

Stretching the boundaries. The second reason your boss may want to improve your EQ involves leadership abilities that fall outside your comfort zone. How well would your skills rise to the occasion, for example, if you were to lead a merger-and-acquisition team? At senior-executive levels, a lack of EQ can be a deal breaker in advancing to these kinds of leadership positions. Self-confidence, organizational awareness and conflict management skills are three areas that often separate the good from the great performers.

Creating an inspirational work environment. Lastly, your boss recognizes that elevating your EQ benefits your colleagues. Remember that mood can be contagious, and it takes only a few seconds to detect someone's frustration or indifference. You've probably noticed how some people can just walk into a room and elevate the mood. Pay attention to what these folks are doing, because they have highly prized EQ skills: optimism and inspirational leadership. All of us know instinctively that optimistic environments are great places to work and thrive.

And for the self-described pessimist, it's important to note that optimism can be developed. In his book Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman suggests that leaders should practice "flexible optimism": It isn't blind optimism, but rather "optimism with its eyes open." This means integrating the hard realities of any situation with a more positive mind-set and using language that communicates possibilities instead of no-win outcomes. In my work, I've noticed that the most effective leaders carefully present problems to the team in ways that invite solutions and options. In your role, there will be times when you can choose to be inspirational or disheartened, flexibly optimistic or deflated. Know that your choice directly influences the mood and effectiveness of your team.

So take a walk in your boss' shoes to get some perspective on your EQ. Solicit feedback from people you trust about how your general mood is perceived. Then check in with your boss to see if your insights about your EQ manifest in the behaviors that define success in your organization.

Angie O'Donnell is an executive coach at Insight Performance in Dedham, Mass. She can be reached at

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