Why Strategic Agility is a Must for Entrepreneurs

Discipline. Persistence. Motivation. Creativity.

As an entrepreneur, these are important — some might even argue, indispensable — traits to possess. But having high emotional intelligence is the difference between being able to start a business, and being able to make a business last.

This may stand at odds with the usual stereotype of a founder, who barely has time to sleep, much less deal with people’s feelings. But the pandemic has made ultra-clear what should have been common knowledge all along: Without the ability to navigate emotions — both your own, and others’ — your business will struggle.

But emotional intelligence has implications beyond merely relating to people, and one critical outgrowth is what’s known as strategic agility — the capacity to anticipate various possibilities and likelihoods and plan for them accordingly.

The four quadrants of EQ

No founder can achieve strategic agility without a healthy dose of emotional intelligence, or EQ. In order to help conceptualize EQ, psychologist Daniel Goleman developed a model based on four quadrants:

Self-awareness: This is the ability to take a clear-eyed look at your own strengths and weaknesses, as well as your core values and triggers. What are you good at, and what needs work? What is your why? And, toughest of all, what sets you off and causes you to act on emotion rather than logic? Those with high self-awareness are adept at answering these questions.

Self-management: Self-management means being able to stay collected and positive in the face of crisis, and taking a distanced approach to emotions, rather than allowing them drive behavior. Someone with good self-management is calm and focused under pressure, and is constantly working on improving.

Social awareness: This begins with empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of other people. The next level is about being cognizant of the overall mood and dynamics between people — in other words, knowing how to read the room.

Social skills: Social skills include, but are not limited to, building networks, developing rapport, giving and taking feedback, and cultivating trust. Also called “relationship management,” this one includes the ability to use an understanding of others’ perspectives to influence their opinion, and also be an inspiring leader.

Research says that EQ may be two times as important as IQ when it comes to business success, and it’s easy to see why. Highly emotionally intelligent people not only have an easier time relating to others; they’re also able to apply that mental flexibility to their businesses.

Knowing where you’re going

According to behavior analyst Kerry Goyette, strategic agility is rooted in continuously adapting, improving and evolving in new and surprising ways. Using the same skills it takes to “read the room,” strategically agile founders are keenly aware of industry trends and how their businesses fit into the overall picture.

Having market awareness on its own isn’t enough, however — it’s also crucial to lean into uncertainty rather than run from it. As Goyette writes, you can create meaning out of chaos by anticipating future if-then scenarios and looking for patterns. For instance, what if there was another quarantine period during a busy-end-of-year season? Not a situation anyone wants, of course, but if it happened, would you be able to readjust your priorities to continue toward your goals? Goyette points out that turning on a dime like this requires a good sense of where your company is going, and knowing your short and long-term objectives.

Being strategically agile has measurable effects, and the pandemic provided more than enough case studies. Research from McKinsey found, unsurprisingly, that agile companies outperformed non-agile companies when it came to navigating COVID-19. The reports’ authors note, however, that “the need for speed won’t be temporary — digitization, globalization, automation, analytics, and the other forces of change will go on accelerating too.” The pandemic may be receding, but the need for agility has become a permanent fixture.

EQ and strategic agility

There’s a reason that entrepreneurs are so often on-edge and volatile — starting a company is stressful. But having high emotional intelligence will soften the edges of everything you do, whether it’s pivoting to an entire workforce working from home, or rethinking your product to fit the changing times.

A major benefit of having high EQ is, of course, that people will want to work with you.Whether you’re netting your choice of job candidates or retaining a loyal client base, everyone wants to be around someone who is tuned into their needs. When you’re empathetic to your teams, you’ll have a better understanding of where everyone is at when the time comes to change gears quickly.

“When you have collective commitment, information flows freely,” Goyette writes. “Leaders and individuals with higher emotional quotients are more effective because they see teams as assets. On the other hand, leaders with low EQs see teams as threats to their resources and ability to control information. This perspective creates silos, tribalism, and information flow gaps.”

EQ isn’t just about relating to other people, though. A big component of self-awareness, one of the four quadrants, means having a handle on your own feelings, which in turn means keeping those feelings under control. We’ve all heard horror stories of entrepreneurs who let stress and pressure get the better of them, and subsequently lose their cool in damaging ways. The effects are at best, embarrassing, and at worse, career-killing.

Another area is risk-taking. Yes, entrepreneurs are often more willing to take leaps of faith than the average person. But these risks should always be calculated. Take me, for example. I didn’t start my company, Jotform, on a whim. It began as a side project that I did on evenings and weekends while I maintained my day job.

It was only after I had grown it to a point that I felt confident it would be sustainable that I finally transitioned to running my business full-time. A good grasp of your own emotions will prevent you from making rash, uninformed decisions, and instead decide with a clear mind what path to take.

Having strong emotional intelligence will also help you weather the ups and downs that come with startup life — and, indeed, the twists and turns it takes along the way. When problems arise, you’ll spend your energy looking for solutions, rather than slipping into a funk.

Strategic agility means understanding, to the extent possible, what the future holds. As scary as it can be to reevaluate your business model, doing so will allow you to move forward, and keep going no matter what the future holds.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website aytekintank.com.

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