When Soulaima Gourani was a teenager, her life changed forever.
After a troubled upbringing—including time spent in the foster care system—a 16-year-old Gourani was pulled aside by a teacher and told something she would never forget. He told her that he could envision her becoming a recognized leader someday. The reason? Despite not “checking the boxes,”—like having a prestigious last name—she demonstrated what we now know is a strong set of emotional intelligence skills.
Raised in Denmark in an era when her Moroccan heritage (and darker skin) caused others to treat her differently, she had a troubled upbringing and was kicked out of school in 7th grade. But a new school gave her the opportunity to meet Ebbe, the teacher who shared a hopeful future for the teenaged Gourani. The potential he witnessed was summed up in three traits the now successful business owner and TedX Copenhagen Speaker refers to as “emotional intelligence.” Leadership, emotional control, and communication stood out in a young Gourani and are the qualities that she credits with building her business and helping her become a world leader.
Gourani’s story is inspiring and reminds us that an M.B.A. may not be as valuable in the workplace as, say, the ability to read people’s behavior and think critically about their needs. The business world is changing in big ways and workers who once thrived in what she calls the “old economy” may not fare so well in the new one. Family name and alma mater may not have the pull they once did. What employers and investors now value, according to Gourani, can be best labeled as “emotional intelligence.”
Harvard Business Review defines emotional intelligence this way:
From a scientific (rather than a popular) standpoint, emotional intelligence is the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions.
Emotional intelligence (or “EQ”) has been linked to business success. Emotional intelligence “augments positive work attitudes, altruistic behavior, and work outcomes.” EQ can no longer be ignored, and smart employers want to see more of it from their employees and partners.
When asked how companies can help develop EQ skills in their workforce, Gourani reminds us that it’s up to the individual to take these steps. Where should you start? She suggests three areas for growth:
Don’t wait for your workplace to hand you the skills to learn. With so much free education online, it’s easier than ever to learn effective methods of communication, problem-solving, and personal growth. If you can afford to invest even $50 a month for books, courses, or workshops, do it. You won’t regret time spent polishing those interpersonal skills.
Gourani believes that networking is the #1 way to get to your business goals, and EQ can get you there. “You have a very powerful network if you are born into it, but it’s a very specific and narrow network.” Taking steps to create your own professional infrastructure works best.
Ask yourself, “who do I know? Have I built myself a strong enough network of people who are different from myself and are the best people in their field?” Set out to create a network that will provide access to the most updated knowledge and opportunities available—regardless of what field that may be in.
Focus on mental health
Finally, think about your mental health. Ask yourself “Have I worked on my resilience? Have I worked on my patience? Have I worked on my biases?” These are the things that can help keep you sharp, innovative, and able to handle change without buckling under pressure or suffering long-term ill effects. If you feel overwhelmed by life, work, or relationships, take action to resolve stress, anxiety, or depression.
Gourani reminds us that today’s workforce is “much more diverse, and the rules of success have changed dramatically. If you have hardships and have been traumatized… these events build your character and give you a lot of things which can be used as a positive driver in your future.” A personal story, even one including a difficult past, may be key to getting the opportunities you seek.
“Give me the story. What makes people sympathize with you, feel like you, love you, like you, and trust you? Your story is no longer something you should be ashamed of—it is something you should be proud of.”
In the end, her journey from teenage runaway to World Economic Forum expert didn’t happen without having that one special encounter that gave her dignity and a fresh look at life. Finding your “Ebba”—a mentor, boss, or teacher who believes in you—is key.
“One person at the right time in your life pulls you aside and says ‘I see you.’ Someone you trust and admire and hold dear can make you believe that at least one person thinks you can do it. And from that point on you can see yourself as becoming a leader.”
In Gourani’s case, seeing was believing. And with the refinement of her special EQ skills, that believing got her to where she is today. Where can it take you?