Founder Survey: EQ Matters More Than IQ

A survey reveals that emotional intelligence in leaders is more important than intelligence.
By Anna Barber, Robyn Ward

Last Updated: March 3, 2021

Published: January 5, 2021

Chris Montgomery/unsplash

As investors, mentors, and coaches to hundreds of founders, 2020 deepened our conviction that emotional intelligence (or EQ) is essential for any entrepreneur perhaps even the single greatest factor in success. 

We wanted to ask founders for their views on emotional intelligence, how 2020 impacted them, and how they’re growing their EQ. 

In our EQ for Entrepreneurs survey of about 100 founders, the results were pretty clear: 

More than 95% stated that EQ in leadership matters more than IQ.

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.

Get more survey results about EQ skills and more

Why EQ at work matters more than ever

As one CEO of an early-stage startup commented, 2020 presented a “huge opportunity to bring humanity to work.” 

With kids and pets wandering on and off the screen and 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.  

While lots of changes and adjustments are required when working remotely, 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,” a founder said.

When it comes to the racial justice protests and Black Lives Matter movement, many founders acknowledged 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.”

Building your EQ muscle

We also wanted to explore how our survey respondents are developing and/or improving their EQ skills.

While we’re pleased to see that 41% have a coach or therapist, we felt there’s 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. 

In many ways, emotional fitness is like physical fitness. You build it through intention, practice, and habit. 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 during interviews, have an etiquette guide during onboarding, and it comes up in performance reviews.” —Milana Rabkin, STEM

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.“ —Alejandro Quilici, REEL

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.” —Heidi Hertel, Fritz Frames

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.” —Federico Pomi, Fabrica

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 confident expression of self. Creativity comes from the self. So in short: Listening = next-level creative expression and product innovation.” —Joe Vezzani, Lunarcrush

Here are some great examples of using EQ during the pandemic:

  • 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

Factoring EQ into diversity, equity & 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: Audit 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 create 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. 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. As we’ve discovered, people who put themselves on the EQ for Entrepreneurs journey often find out that it’s really EQ for Everyone. 

Methodology: The EQ for Entrepreneurs survey was conducted by Anna Barber and FounderForward CEO Robyn Ward from June to September 2020 among 105 founders of established and up-and-coming startups, including Ordermark, The Cut, Comparably, Toucan, Jukin Media, HopSkipDrive, and Beekeeper’s Naturals. Respondents skewed toward the early stage, with roughly half leading companies at the angel or pre-seed stage and 30% in the seed through post-Series C stage. Research assistants Jama Mohamed and Oliver Hirshland contributed to this survey.

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