Do you remember the ending of The Titanic with Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio? Did you think Rose went to sleep and dreamed she saw Jack extending his hand or did she die and see him? My friend and I saw it together and one of us thought she died while the other thought she was dreaming.
We interpret things our own way. For that reason, I like to ask leaders their interpretation of emotional intelligence (EQ). This month’s featured leader in Taking Leadership to Heart, Tricia Dempsey, the President of Agile Resources, Inc., had this to say:
“I define EQ as my ability to be aware and recognize my own triggers of emotions and get in front of it before it becomes an issue. I need to control my own emotions to be able to influence others.”
By her own admission, she’s always been an emotional person with high highs and low lows, unaware of the impact on others. When she began managing others she had a major shift. She’d wake up at 2 a.m., unable to sleep, and start sending emails to her team. In her mind, she was making the most of her insomnia. Getting things done was an emotional high. What she didn’t know was they read those emails as urgent and it stressed them out. When a team member finally told her how her emails were affecting the team, it was a major aha moment. Her emotional swings had a tremendous impact on her team and she had to learn to manage them better.
And so she has. In speaking with some of her team members, they said she is “the best at bringing sunshine to the office and that you’d never know she is having a tough day. She is always smiling and upbeat and there is definitely a trickle-down affect. We feed on it. The coolest part is she is genuine about it.” What a testament to self-regulation. Plus, she is leveraging the fact that emotions are contagious. They spread faster than the common cold.
Tricia learned another lesson in self-regulation, transparency and vulnerability that changed the business in a way she’d never imagined. The story, as she tells it, goes something like this…
“We had an employee who was nothing but drama. I was super emotionally charged by him and would just lose it on him. I was triggering daily and my clients were triggering. He was my best producer though. I felt the team would be upset if I let him go; I felt hostage. I asked two team members to dinner and discussed what they’d think if I fired him. The team said the energy it took for them and me to manage his drama was so draining that they would totally support letting him go. So, when I wasn’t triggered and he wasn’t creating drama, I sat him down and told him calmly that we both deserved better – he deserved to be somewhere he could be successful. It was a HUGE LESSON for me to be vulnerable to my team and show them my genuine frustration. The next year we grew the company by 15%! All the energy I’d been devoting to managing his drama kept me from developing the business. No more drama!”
When you analyze this from an EQ perspective, Tricia was – as many of us do – allowing her emotions to drive her action, or lack of it. Fear kept her from addressing the situation like. And that fear was the basis for an emotional roller coaster that took her and her team on a high drama ride. When she faced her fear (fear of losing a top producer and fear of upsetting her team) and shared her concerns, the transparency and vulnerability paid her back in spades.
On the flip side of the transparency coin, Tricia expects and enables transparency from her team. As she puts it, “Trust is our biggest currency.” Because she instills trust throughout the culture, the team is comfortable going to her when they haven’t reached a goal or something hasn’t gone as planned. One team member expressed it this way, “We have high trust that we can be transparent if something goes wrong. She won’t punish you. However, if you try to cover it up, you’ll have an issue.”
Trust is an integral part of the culture at Agile Resources. They have a work at home policy and Tricia never questions what they are doing at home. She just holds them accountable for getting the work done. For Tricia, trusting her team is easy. “Our employees are the most amazing folks- achievement oriented, focused and they value each other. We are very deliberate in holding up our shared values when hiring.”
I personally saw the evidence of trust in the Agile culture while leading an Emotional Intelligence training session. There was a role play exercise written in such a way that the reader would see it as derogatory and must use a self-managing technique before responding. Everyone in the class reacted to the exercise as planned except the participant who worked at Agile Resources. She said she didn’t read it as negative because at her company they trust each other and are very collaborative, so she never thought there was ill intent. Wow.
In a reflection of accurate self-assessment, Tricia will be the first to say she’s not perfect and struggles with being too empathetic. “I am hyper sensitive to others’ feelings and sometimes don’t do a good job of setting the boundaries between catering to their needs and my own. This is truer in personal life than business. I’m better at setting boundaries in business. I treat customers with a ton of respect and don’t put up with being disrespected. I will set boundaries and assert myself when needed.” Her team attests to this, saying that she has a gift for telling customers they need to shape up in a way that gets the message across without triggering them. It’s the same with providing employee feedback. She is the master at providing constructive feedback; she picks the right time and the right words. What a great use of social awareness! In addition, she has been known to set aside time in the evening to help an employee find the right words to give feedback to someone else. Her belief is, if it’s your problem, it’s my problem.
One of her team members shared an example of Tricia’s empathy and compassion that made a lasting impression on him. He was newly hired, on board for a week and a half, when his baby went into the hospital. His life was in shambles. Without hesitation, Tricia gave him extra PTO to take care of his family. During that time, he was paid his regular salary as well. When he thanked her for her generous offer, she simply said “I trust you will pay me back with strong performance in the future.” In that moment, he was committed to being the best employee possible as long as she’d let him work there.
Another employee explained she had surprise surgery and three to four weeks after returning to work, Tricia continued to ask how she was doing. Most bosses forget about these things a few days after you come back. Not Tricia. She genuinely cared and showed it. That theme keeps showing up – she genuinely cares about her team.
Part of being an empathetic leader is giving people the opportunity to have a voice. Tricia walks this talk every day. When asked to share a scenario, she recounted this story.
“We decided we were going to create a new vision statement. We came together as a group and spent some time brainstorming. I then asked if anyone would be interested in staying late after work one night and helping me flush out the vision some more. No pressure, no obligation. A handful of people volunteered – from all levels in the organization, not just managers. We ended up having a 2-day offsite meeting and creating a 5-year strategy. So we don’t just manage from the top; we value everyone’s input. Everyone has something to contribute.”
What is the business impact of all this? Agile Resources has almost no turnover. In 2 years, they’ve lost one person out of 16 employees. That’s huge in an industry where the average turnover is 50%. And they had 47% growth last year. Proof that a little EQ can go a long way.
In closing, I’d like to add the first time I met Tricia Dempsey she was speaking at a networking event. During her speech, she revealed that she was a cancer survivor. That’s not even the punchline. When she found out she had breast cancer, she started a business. Who starts a business when they are fighting Stage 3 breast cancer? Apparently Tricia does. I can’t think of a more resilient, optimistic effort.
To learn more about Agile Resources, Inc. and how they were recognized by Inc 5000 three years in a row, named Top 10 Contingency Staffing by the Atlanta Business Chronicle or how Tricia was named Small Business person of the year by the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, please visit Agile’s website at http://www.gotoagile.com/.
If you know of a leader you’d like to spotlight in our Taking Leadership to Heart series, please email Dawn@DayBreakEQ.com.