Survey Says: EQ For The Win in 2021 & Beyond

100 Founders Respond to “EQ for Entrepreneurs” Survey
by Anna Barber & Robyn Ward

Through our work with hundreds of entrepreneurs over several years as investors, mentors, and coaches, we’ve become convinced that emotional intelligence (or EQ) is essential for any entrepreneur — perhaps even the single greatest factor in success. Most of 2020 deepened that conviction.

Whether facing challenges managing your own feelings or struggling to read and understand the emotions of your team members over Zoom and Slack, 2020 brought the importance of EQ to the forefront.

We wanted to ask founders for their views on emotional intelligence, how 2020 impacted them, and what they’re doing to demonstrate and grow EQ. In our EQ for Entrepreneurs survey of about 100 founders, the results were pretty clear: More than 95% stated that EQ in leadership is more important than IQ.

Not so long ago, the startup world revered “lone ranger” genius founders — and EQ wasn’t in the picture. It’s clear from these survey results that founders are no longer following that archetype — and are leaning into the softer side of leadership.

What’s perhaps more interesting is the EQ skills respondents claimed as their highest and lowest. The top selections were:

  • trust-building
  • empathy
  • adaptability

All are essential and enduring skills, especially at the earliest stages of a startup when a team is forming around an idea, doing customer discovery, and pivoting frequently to find product-market fit.

Interestingly enough, respondents ranked these areas as their lowest EQ skills:

  • giving feedback
  • handling conflict
  • coaching and developing others

The skills that leaders need urgently as their companies mature could be described as “peacetime CEO” EQ skills versus “wartime CEO” EQ skills.

The fact is many elements of EQ exist, and none of us excels at all of them. Even for founders with high EQ, the journey to “scale yourself with your company” requires constant work and development.

Why EQ in the workplace is more important than ever

Nearly 60% of our founder respondents reported that in a year shaped by the pandemic and a crisis of racial justice, incorporating EQ into culture is more important now than ever. Or as one CEO of an early-stage startup commented, 2020 presented a “huge opportunity to bring humanity to work.”

As kids and pets wander on and off the screen, as we see each other’s homes and get used to glimpses of pajamas and midmorning snacks, as we share the mental health challenges of simply getting through life during a pandemic, it’s not only easier to see the whole person — it’s essential to accept our total humanity and bring that more fully into our work lives.

Our survey also made it clear that leading with EQ, consistently displaying it, and building it into the fabric of the company culture — all of this becomes more challenging when done remotely.

“Working from home has also eliminated the boundary between work/life and on top of that, our life has been thrown upside down,” one founder said. “It’d be insane to not over-index on EQ when leading a team right now … I honestly wonder who’d say no to that question? Where are you at? In a hole?”

While lots of changes and adjustments are required, three themes emerged from the survey responses:

Connection and communication: Founders noted an increased lack of alignment and the need to rethink and amp up communications to improve understanding and connection. “It’s easier to fall out of touch now, and harder to read body language, tone of voice, etc. Must be more explicit about feelings and intentions and sometimes feels awkward,” one founder said.

Harder to read an individual or room: Many respondents commented on their own struggle to understand where their teams were on an issue, or how the team was doing emotionally. As one founder described it, “I find it much more challenging to gauge people’s reactions, emotions, etc. when we’re unable to read body language and other nonverbal cues; really hard to read people virtually and pick up on subtle cues.”

Awareness and empathy for employee mental health: Many founders commented that they felt an increased sense of responsibility for the emotional well-being of their teams.

  • “COVID-19 has brought on heightened levels of stress and anxiety for everyone so it’s vital to possess more EQ to make sure teams are emotionally supported.”
  • “It’s more important than ever to be engaged with the team’s life situations, emotional health, and challenges in order to keep them going.”

When it comes to the racial justice protests and Black Lives Matter movement, many founders shared openly and honestly that they had personal work to do in addition to the work in their companies. Here are some comments we found particularly powerful:

  • “You come at a crossroads: Do you write boilerplate public statements and get on with your company’s life, or do you take time and energy out of your team’s and your day to deeply engage with the topic, hear people out, [and] craft an action plan that moves the needle forward for the movement ever so slightly?”
  • “With the BLM movement, the emphasis is on being self-aware (recognize you don’t know as much as you think you know about the experience of our Black brothers/sisters), listening (a posture to just understand and not defend/justify), and empathetic (come alongside them in meaningful ways). We all have blind spots, and it’s up to the individual to put in the work to be more self-aware.”

We agree with the respondent who said: “We believe culture is not just what you say you care about — it’s what you do.” We’d add that it’s really about who you are as an individual and a company. And EQ plays a big role in this, from who and why to how and what.

Building your EQ muscle

Naturally, we were curious what steps, if any, our respondents were taking to work on developing and/or improving their EQ skills.

While we were pleased to see that 41% have a coach or therapist, we felt there was a disconnect between the stated importance of EQ and a concerted effort to work on the many skills that make up emotional intelligence.

This may be because most of our respondents self-reported high EQ. Of course, studies have found most people don’t have the level of self-awareness (the cornerstone of EQ) they think they do. In addition, if you follow Daniel Goleman’s work, you know that there are 18 elements — or skills — of EQ. We encourage the entrepreneurs we work with to view EQ as a journey, not a destination.

In many ways, emotional fitness is like physical fitness. You build it through intention, practice, and habit. It’s very different from IQ in that it originates from the neurotransmitters in the limbic system of our brains, which controls feelings, impulses, and drives. IQ happens in our neocortex, which governs the analytical, technical, and logic. You can’t simply read a book and become more emotionally intelligent, but you can increase your EQ via practices. Mindfulness and breathing exercises, journaling to identify and process emotions, and practicing self-care are just a few suggestions we have for hitting the EQ gym.

Building EQ into company culture also takes intention. Here are some of the ways our survey respondents have approached building EQ when it comes to:

Hiring and operationalizing: “We screen it during interviews, we have an etiquette guide during onboarding, and it comes up in performance reviews.”

Communications, getting feedback, and checking in: “Daily stand-ups have been crucial because they allow us to see the state of the team, and keep a check of the overall mood and motivation levels of the company. We also do one-on-ones each week, as well as weekly retrospectives to not only help assess productivity but also get a better pulse on the things that worry or excite our team.”

Honesty and transparency: “We discuss the ups and the downs of the business so no one is kept in the dark, have open discussions when conflict arises, and evaluate constantly on what’s working and what’s not in terms of strategies with customers and in supporting the communication within our team.”

Coaching and development: “We invest time and resources in helping people fulfill their potential. We have a specific metric to make sure we constantly ask ourselves how much we’re expressing of our potential.”

Listening, trust-building, and empathy: “When you truly have empathy for others, they confide in you. That creates trust. Trust creates honesty. Honesty is the root of creativity as it allows a confident expression of self. Creativity comes from the self. So in short: Listening = next-level creative expression and product innovation.”

Here are some specific examples of EQ at work during the pandemic:

  • A few months into working from home, Ordermark sent an anonymous culture survey to get feedback
  • Sike Insights employs red, yellow, and green to take its team’s temperature each morning (and also offers this system as its product to other companies)
  • Applied VR has implemented a monthly Happiness Index survey to get a pulse on how people are doing and where they’re struggling
  • Directech Labs has an optional Monday Meditation session
  • Necessaire purchased Madefor boxes for its employees, and Toucan is allowing employees to expense teletherapy app subscriptions
  • Disqo and Tone Messaging have held virtual retreats with connection and teamwork at the heart of the objectives

Factoring EQ into diversity, equity, and inclusion

In terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), several of our respondents mentioned leaning into empathy and doing better in their hiring practices. To help provide more concrete ideas, both strategic and tactical, we reached out to Valerie Williams, founder of a DEI consulting company called Converge Firm. Here are some of Valerie’s best practices:

Founders in all stages: Do the hard work. Ask yourself and your leadership why DEI is important. Think about the:

  • business perspective
  • emotional perspective
  • ethical perspective

Use your answers to inform the work that needs to be done.

Early-stage companies in the process of building culture, do so through the lens of belonging and inclusion. It is not a feature; it is foundational.

Later-stage companies: Conduct an audit of your processes, systems, and overall culture to assess how equitable and inclusive they are. Engage in company-level conversations on DEI (note: this is where high EQ shines), hold trainings and workshops, and support Employee Resource Groups, which are safe spaces for marginalized groups to be able to commune together.

Startups, by nature, are stressful, fast-moving, and ever-changing environments. Practicing EQ can make the rollercoaster smoother for everyone. Add the challenges we faced in 2020 and the fact that the new normal is all about change, we believe emotional and social competence will be a deciding factor in what sets apart the strong, successful leaders and companies of 2021 and beyond.

Of course, improved EQ also yields benefits to relationships outside the workplace — fostering empathy, greater understanding, and better communication. As we’ve discovered, people who put themselves on the EQ for Entrepreneurs journey often find out that it’s really EQ for Everyone.

**we wrote this to spark a conversation about the importance of EQ in leadership and culture, please share feedback, insights, and /or best practices in the comments section.

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About the Authors

Anna Barber

Anna is a partner at M13 and the head of M13’s Launchpad. She previously spent four years as the Managing Director of Techstars LA and is also a partner in The Fund LA, a pre-seed venture fund. A frequent speaker about the LA tech ecosystem and women in entrepreneurship, Anna’s mission is to work with diverse teams of founders to build world-changing companies. Her career has included stints as a corporate lawyer, McKinsey consultant, product executive, and entrepreneur in ed-tech, retail, and e-commerce. She’s also a certified executive coach. Anna graduated from Yale and Yale Law School and is a proud native New Yorker now happily #longLA.
Find her on Twitter @annawbarber and join M13’s founder's community here.

Robyn Ward

Robyn is a leadership and performance coach. Via her boutique coaching and training firm, FounderForward, she helps founders and startups reach their full potential. Over her startup career spanning more than 20 years — as an operator, investor, and now coach — she has worked with hundreds of leaders. Robyn is a frequent keynote and speaker on the topics of best-self leadership, the entrepreneurial mindset, and high-performing teams and cultures. She also co-teaches a “Performance Mindset for Business” course at her alma mater USC.
Find her on Twitter @rmward and join the FounderForward newsletter here.

Methodology: The EQ for Entrepreneurs survey was conducted by FounderForward from July to September 2020 among 105 founders. Respondents skewed toward the early stage, with roughly half leading companies at the pre-seed stage, and 35% in the seed through post-Series C stage. Research assistants Jama Mohamed and Oliver Hirshland contributed to this survey.

Startup Coach/Company and Community Builder/Investor. Mentor@Techstars, BoD@Women Founders Network, Entrep Teacher@USC