At the age of 21, I sat for the Certified Public Accounting (CPA) exam. Two years later, after completing additional requirements, I became a full-fledged CPA.
The exam is technical, encompassing, and onerous. It spans several days and covers subjects ranging from law to business contracts, from mathematical equations to essays on accounting theory. By design, only 20 percent of the people who sit for the exam pass it on any given cycle. In addition to passing the CPA exam, each state has different professional experience requirements you must complete. And then you need to pass an Ethics exam to round out your certification. To say the technical training to become a CPA is robust would be an understatement.
My Enneagram personality system training was also intense, but in a completely different way. Here I studied my own behavior and motivations. I listened to other people talk about their experiences and contrasted these with my own. There was some written examination, but by and large, the requirements were self observation or active listening.
My CPA training was hard but had a clear path to success. My Enneagram training was less clear. There was no “percentage correct” I was trying to achieve, and success was a largely personal question. But on reflection, I’m surprised to conclude my personality system study has been more valuable in my professional career than all my technical training. Far beyond my finance knowledge, this system has helped me be better in Board meetings, in hiring decisions, in financial statement development, and in crisis management.
Let’s explore how a personality system might help you, too, be a better professional.
Why EQ Is Just as Important as IQ in Business
Intelligence quotient, or IQ, measures your memory, your fluid and quantitative reasoning skills, and your ability to process information. It is important and useful, and high IQ helps great people stand out. But in most business environments, it is only part of the picture.
Emotional intelligence, or EQ, measures your ability to judge and react to the people around you. A high EQ allows you to be ultra-perceptive to the undercurrents, spoken and unspoken, of what is happening around you and within you.
If you have high IQ but low EQ, you might be a great individual contributor but working in groups, teams, or with other people may be a problem. You run the risk of being ineffective, disruptive and in the worst case, destructive in a professional environment. To be the best you can be, IQ alone isn’t enough. You need EQ too. And the good news is that EQ can be cultivated.
How Personality Systems Cultivate EQ
EQ includes five elements: self-awareness, self-regulation, internal motivation, empathy and people skills. Within these five core elements, the starting point for EQ is self-awareness. You can’t accurately read the external emotional environment and manage your own response if you have no understanding of your own internal world.
One of the best tools to develop self-awareness is personality systems, and all major personality systems like DISC, the Myers-Briggs, and the Enneagram are designed to help you see yourself more clearly and objectively. This accuracy and clarity is the foundation of a high EQ.
A Framework for Self-Awareness
Personality systems start by establishing different trait groupings. Are you self-referencing or other-referencing? Is your decision making more rational or intuitive? Do you avoid conflict or are you comfortable with it? The answers to these questions help establish your personality profile. These systems offer an objective way to understand your inherent strengths, gifts, weaknesses, and blind spots. Being able to objectively see your blind spots is priceless in a business setting.
In the Enneagram, I’m a Type 7 Enthusiast which means my habit of attention focuses on the positive. I think expansively, and I like change and new experiences. While I had sort of sensed all these things, the personality system brought these characteristics into clear view. The system also pointed to my weakness: attention to detail isn’t my strong point, I have difficulty seeing what could go wrong, and I can be overly optimistic.
For much of my career, I was in high level finance positions where attention to detail is important. If I missed details, payrolls would go unprocessed, companies could run out of money, jobs might be lost. My weaknesses could have been an exercise in failure or frustration, but since I knew very objectively these were weak points, I developed systems and checks and balances within my work to compensate.
The personality system gave me a non-personal way to look at myself. I didn’t feel guilty that I wasn’t detail-oriented. I spent no time fighting with myself but instead created checklists, tie out schedules and a review process to compensate for my lack of focus on details. It gave me a way to de-personalize my own weaknesses so I could focus on my strengths: my ability to think strategically, my mind’s way of making original connections, and my upbeat expansive attitude. It also meant that when I did make mistakes, I could own them quickly and honestly. I didn’t feel shame. I understood my own mental make-up.
A New Lens of Perception
While I was the Chief Financial Officer of a venture capital firm, the senior partner, my boss, matched the pattern of an Enneagram Type 6, the Loyalist. He was cautious, constantly scanning for what could go wrong and very slow and deliberate in his decision-making. His habit of attention was essentially my blind spot, but oddly, this polar opposite way of thinking became one of the strengths in our dynamic.
Without the Enneagram, I would have interpreted my boss as an alarmist, overly cautious, and paranoid. Because of the Enneagram, I understood he was seeing things I couldn’t, and I could appreciate how his cautious approach benefited the firm. I knew not to press him to make quick decisions, not to tell him he was overreacting, and to moderate my enthusiasm for new initiatives. Despite seeing the world through radically different lenses, we worked well together, thanks largely to my application of the Enneagram.
The ability to see through his lens also meant that some of his occasionally extreme behavior had context. At one point during my tenure, we moved offices, going from one skyscraper building in San Francisco to another. We had carefully measured the new space for our existing furniture and even used a 3-D software program to make sure it would fit comfortably.
My boss’s Type 6 mind began working overtime, and just 48 hours before the move, he panicked. Despite the fact everything was measured and confirmed, he asked us to cut out life size paper renditions of the furniture and bring it to the new space so he could see for himself if it would fit.
On my own, I would have been shocked and irritated. But since I knew the personality system, and I had an idea of how his anxious mind was racing and clouding rational thought, I was able to convince the firm’s associate that yes, we needed to do this and no, it wouldn’t take long. As suspected, the furniture fit, and my boss calmed down. Crisis averted, harmony maintained.
Cultivate True Compassion
They say the business world is cut-throat and cold but the truth is, the business world is made up of individual people and their individual lives. If you can reach someone and speak to their humanity, everything runs more smoothly.
As a young Enthusiast 7, I could be irritatingly positive. Bad news was threatening, and if I heard something negative, my mind did a lot of mental gymnastics to convince myself everything was going to be fine. I could be trapped in sunshine, acting happy and joyful even when it wasn’t appropriate.
After learning this personality system and applying its tools, I began to make progress on relaxing my habit of toxic positivity. It solidified one day when a direct report came to me to confess he had just learned that his partner had cancer. Instead of saying my usual knee-jerk “Don’t worry!! It’s going to be fine!” I was able to listen to him describe the prognosis and instead say “I am so sorry. I don't know what to say... I’m here if you need help, and let us know if you need time off.” It brought us closer on a human level and also opened the door professionally for him to admit he might not be at his best performance and maybe we should look at how to best allocate his workload.
Whether you work in finance, human resources, sales, or administration, if you work with other people, personality systems can help you be better at your job.
If you work with other people, cultivating EQ is one of the best things you can do. And if you want to develop your EQ, learning a personality system is a great tool.
A personality system offers you:
- A framework to understand your inherent strengths and gain visibility into your blind spots and potential pitfalls.
- A way to understand the experience of others.
- A path to compassion.