Who Knew Retail Stores Could Help Identify Emerging Leaders?

In the early 1990s, a retailer launched an ad campaign with “come see the softer side.” The retailer was well known for its hard-line departments, such as hardware and lawn and garden. In an effort to highlight their “softer” lines of business, the apparel and home store ad campaign launched. They realized that the softer sideline of business could generate additional income after the launch of its ad campaign. Evaluating growth from a different perspective provided unexpected performance that changed the overall strategy for the company.

Much like the retailer with hard and soft lines of business, emotional intelligence (EI) has both soft and hard competencies. Peak performance is achieved when both sets of competencies are mastered, which makes EI a perfect tool to identify emerging leaders.

Discipline and Commitment

When developing a strategy of how to identify emerging leaders, one method is to assess the individual’s hard-line performance and their soft skills. A balance between hard skills (such as data base management, CRM platforms and analytics) and soft skills (such as decision-making, strategic thinking, independence, stress tolerance, empathy, emotional expression, emotional self-awareness and interpersonal relationships) creates the foundation for peak performance.

Recently, I was working with an individual who asked why a team would need to get all soft and gushy when they are already a top-performing business line. They confirmed that the approach with their team is: Results, Results, Results. I explained it as an equation: A x E = R (Activity x Effectiveness = Results). If someone is not providing “R,” do they need more activity or to be more effective at the activity to generate more results?

Now take the same equation but substitute the “E” for emotion. In EI, emotion is a feeling (not to be confused with being “emotional,” which is defined as taking action on an emotion). Studies find that high-performing employees with strong soft skills actually achieve higher performance results than employees with only hard skills. An analogy is hard skills are the tasks done day in and out that create the foundation for a house, and the soft skills are what makes the house a home.

When conducting training classes, I frequently correlate exercise to learning. When you exercise, there is resistance, which can be uncomfortable in the moment but increases your strength overtime. The same can be said for learning; if you are not exercising your mind, you are not learning, which means you are not strengthening your knowledge or skills. True introspection can be uncomfortable, but the insights gained to improve your self-happiness and the overall impact on others makes the effort worthwhile.

Getting in touch with your softer side can be laborious because identifying and accepting areas that need to be developed are not part of our normal way of being. If the recent health environment has taught us anything it is that we must learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. We need to be true to ourselves and make a commitment to be disciplined, as well as be open to self-introspection and apply honest perspective.

Introspection: You Can Change the Spots on a Leopard

Everyone can be an emerging leader, whether your soft skills are strong or being developed. Learning to slightly adjust how you view and approach situations and apply soft skills can be simple. Ever played the game Googly Eyes where you change the lenses in the glasses and try to guess what the image is on the card? Every day we wear perspective glasses but often forget to change the lenses. Perspective is not right or wrong; it is merely different ways of viewing situations. To begin seeing a different perspective, you need to change your lenses.

Committing to learning how to see different perspectives will help you approach situations in a new way, improving interpersonal relationships, self-control, social perception and effectiveness, self-regard and self-awareness. In order to learn how to see different perspectives you must commit to self-introspection. Being truthful and honest with oneself will help you uncover and recognize the triggers that cause you not to change the lenses in your perspective glasses. Effectively changing the perspective lenses deepens your understanding of where the other person is coming from and what influences or triggers are at the core of your position or response. With this newfound perspective of empathy comes commitment, introspection, and a strengthening of emotional intelligence, resulting in true behavioral change. This is the pinnacle, where people are drawn to you to lead them and help them achieve the highest of goals.

Perspective Competencies to Identify Emerging Leaders

It takes discipline, introspection and practice to develop our own soft skills. It is at this point that you can then see soft and hard skill talents in others to identify those who will be great leaders. Look for those who have the capacity, commitment and capability for the following:

  • Express emotions appropriately and consistently and think before they act.
  • There are three power bases that are most critical to leaders’ ability to influence others: expert, legitimate and referent power. Emerging leaders can quickly develop the sense of who possesses power in the relationship, an understanding of how the power dynamic influences feelings and behaviors, and the ability to use base powers in combination and interchangeably based on the person(s) and the situation. Influence is the perception of being able to identify and flex these power bases:
    • Expert power: Look for those who can pinpoint their purpose, be patient in waiting for results, and have mastered the soft skill competency to become a trusted expert.
    • Legitimate power: Look for those who rise to the challenge of leadership tasks and master the use of other base powers to develop their ability to influence.
    • Referent power: Earns respect and trust of others. Look for those who are trailblazers and lead the change.
  • An understanding of the different types of empathy and how to use them:
    • Emotional empathy: Ability to understand another person’s emotions and respond appropriately. Look for those who are active (not passive) listeners. Can they tune into the person’s feelings and not be afraid to listen and really hear what the other person is saying?
    • Cognitive empathy: Ability to understand the emotions of others. Look for those who are good mediators, calm under pressure, see others’ perspective(s) in a logical way, are not afraid of confrontation, and use logic to outline their perspective.
  • Recognize, understand and appreciate how other people feel, and respect their perspectives and feelings.
  • Understand and control triggers that can impact EI skill capabilities and interpersonal relationships. Look for those who understand what sets them off and are able to control their response. For example, a trigger could be being afraid to fail.
  • Recognize, own and control their emotions. Individuals who can identify their “Happy Place” are able to refocus, stay in control of emotions, provide appropriate situational responses and remain centered.
  • Understand, accept and capitalize on strengths and take action to consistently improve weaknesses.
  • Seek continual improvement, which includes not being afraid to ask for help or ask questions to facilitate self-discovery.

Discipline, Introspection and Perspective (DIP) and Change

Looking back over the past year with a different perspective of how the pandemic impacted work, I asked myself, “Did we do a good job supporting workers?” Our teams were faced with adjusting to working remotely as well as juggling home schooling, taking care of elderly family members, facing their own health concerns and even family member’s loss of employment.

Did we have a contingency plan to support them emotionally? Did we have strong soft skills necessary to lead them and help them cope? Did we have an understanding of our workplace demographics and how different generations would be impacted by or respond to the challenges we faced? What could we do to prepare for the uncertainty we endured for over a year and how could a new normal be established faster to provide a sound foundation for employees to lower their anxieties about the future?

In response, senior and executive management acknowledged they needed to better understand what team members were concerned with and feeling to begin strategic work to identify support resources. In an effort to provide answers to these questions, we engaged in two work environment surveys. The first survey scoped how concerned employees were with the virus, loss of employment, financial stability, food resources and child care. The second survey focused on availability of resources, communication, benefits, diversity and inclusion, empowerment, accountability, culture and leadership.

It was clear that employees were looking for a senior and executive management team who could quickly deal with change, a company that was financially stable and strongly rooted in the community, had a strong culture, and offered good benefits and training. Most importantly, employees were looking for flexibility, empathy and an understanding of their psychological safety concerns regarding returning back to the office.

In response, emotional intelligence concepts and resources were discussed with the senior and executive management team. Managers and supervisors were provided with a variety of leadership trainings to foster conversations supporting flexibility, psychological safety as well as how to manage a remote and in-person staff fairly.

We continued to experience an increase in the number of employees shifting to remote work, coupled with increased workloads brought on by government programs and fewer on-site employees to help manage in-office tasks, and the result was that a pool of courageous leaders emerged from the shadows and became the champions of change impacting remote and in-office staff ability to stay connected. While the needs of all employees during a time of incredible change were not the same, our ability to be open to and act on the survey feedback in an honest and transparent manner provided a foundation of courage for others to carry the torch.

Identifying the next generation of leaders and developing their emotional intelligence soft skills now will not only help current leaders develop but will prepare our future leaders for managing both daily work and crises they may encounter. Developing emerging leaders’ soft skills will create a pool of talent that is less likely to be negatively impacted by the presence of stressors. The future of work is here; navigating the unknown challenges will be easier to manage in a positive, productive and emotionally healthy way if we take time to develop the next generation of soft-skilled, emotionally intelligent leaders, today.