Business-Smart but People-Challenged

people-smart leaders

There is an up and coming leader in a global IT firm, Ray, who is known as the smartest guy in the room. He has been a top performer for years, is well known for his executive briefings of customers, and his solid strategic sense. In fact, he’s so smart that whenever he goes into a meeting with colleagues, everyone waits for him to weigh in on the issue of the day, since there’s no point in having a different view. You’re most likely going to be made wrong. He also has the ear of the Senior Vice President, so Ray speaks with power as well as smarts. 

Ray’s problem, however, is that he just got some rather difficult 360 feedback. His colleagues don’t like working with him, are fearful given his proximity to the SVP, and don’t find the meetings very helpful. Ray was flustered by this information. He didn’t understand. The essence is Ray is Business-Smart But People-Challenged. He’s got low EQ.

Recent research sponsored by the American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business found that among the most critical skills executives need in this complex global marketplace, are the ability to build trust-based relationships, effectively collaborate with others, and engage the workforce so that they are aligned with senior leadership.1 Ray does not possess any of these capabilities.

The future of business leadership belongs to “people-smart” leaders.

In company after company, we see people who are technically good at what they do as engineers, project specialists, or sales people, being promoted into the leadership track where they have to manage people. Sometimes this transition is possible, but more often than not, what made them successful on the technical track impedes success on the management track—as in Ray’s case. In fact, based on the 360 data, he realized he was probably in the wrong job.

What can senior leadership do in this situation? Here are some perspectives:

  • Leadership EQ is More Important Than IQ: Work gets done through people. Leadership requires high EQ, empathy, and understanding of what motivates people
  • Collaboration and Trust-Building Are Essential Capabilities: Leaders must know how to effectively collaborate across silos, cultures, levels, and geographies, as well as build trust, which is the new currency in business
  • Workforce Engagement and Ownership Ensures Success: Millennials and Gen Y expect to be engaged and own their work; if they don’t, they leave. Imagine the impact on business if an entire workforce owned the strategy, goals, and process
  • Make the Decision Quickly: If a leader cannot change their people smarts, cut your losses quickly; don’t drag it out and victimize your workforce
  • Revisit How Leaders are Identified and Selected: If there is a pattern of Business-Smart But People-Challenged leaders, it’s time to reconfigure your recruitment and selection process.

The future of business leadership belongs to People-Smart leaders. At the end of the day, you can have the best business plan, strategy, and funding, but execution is done through and with people. They have to own it to take care of it. It is leadership’s job to make that happen.

What are your thoughts and can you add to these perspectives? I welcome your ideas and look forward to your comments below. 

1. Future Trends in Business Education, Executive Core LLC, for AACSB, UNICON, and EMBAC, Summer, 2015

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Dr. Edward Marshall works with companies to build leadership cultures based on trust and collaboration. He is an adjunct professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, and Managing Partner of The Marshall Group, LLC. You can contact him at:, 919.265.9616.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.