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Putting the Emotion Into EQ with Etienne de Bruin

Episode 17

Emotional intelligence is essential to good leadership, but many CTO’s stress the importance of IQ instead. To move from contributor to manager, it’s a good idea to invest the time to explore EQ, as well as personality profiles to better understand how to manage people.



Show Notes

  • Managing expectations
  • Emotional Intelligence 2.0
  • DISC profiles
  • Avoidance and collaboration
  • Dealing with conflict
  • Real leadership
  • It takes practice to change old habits



Announcer: Welcome to the Programming Leadership Podcast, where we help great coders become skilled leaders and build happy, high performing software teams.


Marcus: All right, welcome to this show today. I am so excited to have Etienne de Bruin, the CEO of 7CTOs, that’s a mouthful, on with us today. Welcome, Etienne.


Etienne: Thank you very much for having me, Marcus.


Marcus: I am really excited, because the topic you proposed is something that I think is so important, and also frankly quite misunderstood. And that’s the idea of emotional intelligence, particularly as it relates to technical leaders, but before we dive into that, let’s back up. Tell me a little bit about yourself and the work you do with 7CTOs.


Etienne: Thank you. Absolutely. I am a CTO type. In other words, I love the code and I love entrepreneurship and I love seeing software products change people’s lives, and been coding all my life. Became a software developer, senior software engineer, engineering manager, and then CTO to a few companies. And after my last stint of a startup that I co founded, I decided I was way more interested in the people behind the role of the CTO than I was at just jumping into my next product or my next value proposition or my next pitch deck. And so I’ve had an incredible time rallying the troops and bringing CTOs into a peer mentoring environment where they help each other, kind of help you see behind the corners the things that you don’t know that you don’t know. So we meet on a monthly basis in groups of six or seven and we work through the hard issues of situational leadership all the way through to achieving our professional and personal goals.


Marcus: Wow, that sounds amazing. And so you mentioned the idea of emotional intelligence and as we were kind of starting back, before we hit the record button, you started to talk about the transition from engineer because I appreciate you have laid out your engineering credentials to us. You were a programmer I saw on Linkedin you were Assist Admin, but you started to talk about the transition and maybe how emotional intelligence plays in. Could you tell, let’s go back to that. So maybe just tell me even what your transition was like.


Etienne: Yes. I think I’ll kind of dovetail or maybe work my way back. In seven CTOs, when I started the community I really thought that our conversations would be focused on the software development life cycle, the technical debt, managing your CEO’s expectations and sort of the plethora of all the standard things we struggle with as we push product out the door and every single time it just comes back to the people challenge and this incredible deficit that incredible CTOs feel in this area of EQs. So, we’re all high on the IQ probably, but the EQ is something we struggle with. And I think that’s partly why seven CTOs as is growing and is so successful is because I tell people what gets you at the table is your IQ, but kind of what keeps you at the table is your EEQ and so A, just kind of seeing how so many CTOs or technical leaders crave more of that ECU training.


Etienne: I think B, I had a moment probably about 12, 13 years ago in my startup up where I thought that I was really, I’m an extrovert, which is a rarity. I know, but I really thought that I was a fantastic CTO. I was the cool guy. I knew my stuff. I bought the products first iteration with my bare hands, IE a blank VI session and no frameworks. I just hand rolled everything. But anyways, and so I had the authority, I had established my credentials and authority to my team because they knew I could code and could architect pro systems. But I think I had a huge awakening or a sort of a reality check when I flew them all out and we all did a retreat and I kind of put a blank canvas on the whiteboard and I said, hey, let’s brainstorm some ideas on sort of where the product is going. And I thought A, I was succeeding on inclusion and every voice counts from the most junior to the most senior. And I was just, there was a surprise that how stop start the process was and how people just weren’t participating.


Etienne: And then just to basically realized that I wasn’t aware of how fearful they were of collaborating with me because I was so blunt in my feedback and I was so in the end as cliche as it may sound I was really only happy if the idea was mine. And I think that’s where I realized I have a real problem on sort of my emotional side. I was almost like a baby in those meetings seeking sort of the constant approval and adoration of my minions and it was terrible. It was a terrible, terrible moment. It all went down in flames in the kitchen of this massive house we rented where they basically, there was almost a mutiny, where I was on the one side of the kitchen, they were on the other side and it was almost the end of my whole engineering team, it was terrible.


Marcus: Oh my gosh.


Etienne: Thank you for helping me relive those moments, Marcus.


Marcus: Well, as terrible as it sounds, it sounds also to me like you had some insights, some revelation about some things. So what did you do with that?


Etienne: So what I realized was I wasn’t going to succeed in the next level of our company’s development if I didn’t change. It wasn’t about me hiring, at that point I thought, well, maybe I hired the wrong people or I built this team on sort of the wrong premise. But actually they were all incredible people. I realized that I was going to have to think differently about my team. And the first revelation I had was I kind of draw this monster on the whiteboard where the way I was hiring was to hire people as extensions of myself. So I like to draw this little stick figure where every finger and every toe is another stick figure.


And it’s just like a horrible thing to behold. But I think that was the organization I created was people who could just do the hours because I only had two hands. And if I had 30 hands I would just do it all myself. And so letting go of the concept of people just executing hours and to rather see them as independent, creative human beings. And the first book that someone gave me is a book by the Kelley brothers, the founders of IDEO called Creative Confidence. And what a remarkable book to show me that every single person we work with is creative. We just vary in our levels of confidence about our creativity. And so when I started seeing my engineers as not as analytical execution oriented people, but actually as creative beings who wanted to craft code and be creative, that changed everything for me. And that took me into this world of emotional intelligence.


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Marcus: If somebody is listening right now and they may not want to admit it, but they might be the monster you described with the, and they’ve hired people that seemed a lot like them who could be extensions as they thought. Well, I don’t have time to do front end. I’ll get a front end. And that’s really all they’re hoping that person will do. What advice or what book, is there a book or resource you might recommend to someone who’s thinking, I mean you’ve already given us one great one, but is there a next place that you went in your journey?


Etienne: So I would say probably where I would go to kind of, there are a couple really awesome books that help people navigate the world of individual contributor to becoming an engineering manager. And I don’t have any of those books off the top of my head. There are plenty of them. The book that I would recommend people just go to is called Emotional Intelligence 2.0. And it’s just a really, it’s a really simple read. It’s almost, it’s broken down into bite size chunks. It’s by Travis Bradberry. And so Daniel Goldman is sort of the father of the emotional intelligence. He coined the phrase, he wrote the book on emotional intelligence. It is meaty though. And it’s probably a more of a, if you’re not at, it’s a hard read.


Marcus: It’s quite academic.


Etienne: Yeah. So Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is really a stunning, it helps you understand why emotional intelligence is important, where it comes from kind of, and then talks about the four quadrants of emotional intelligence, which I know as engineers, we like to see, we like to see the simple diagram on the whiteboard to help us understand things.


Marcus: We love a quadrant system, don’t we? We just, then we put some dots on there. We start to map stuff out.


Etienne: Some arrows.


Marcus: Exactly. It sounds like so many of the personality tests that I’ve taken, that I’ve delivered and so how could, let’s go back to hiring. So now as you’re hiring people, if you’re giving, you’re now advising and you’re hearing these CTOs in your current role, you’re hearing people talk about hiring. What do you think we should be looking for? If we’re not looking for just extensions of ourselves, almost resenting those darn people. If we only could multiply ourselves, we would, what should we be looking for?


Etienne: I had a fantastic conversation with someone who was at a large book, solid turned rentable data, manage data center management. I won’t name the company but they’re massive. Anyways, I talked to him about this conundrum and he basically gave me a fantastic, there are two things we want to do when we hire. One, we want to make sure someone fulfills the minimum requirements of the SPEC. So if you said someone needs to know, react or needs to code in Flutter, you want to make sure they can do that. But then the second thing is you want to make sure someone is set up to succeed in the team. And I think this is where people use terms like cultural fit and all that, but I loved how he said, to succeed inside of the team.


And when you do that, I would say DISC profiles have helped me a lot in the past to understand if someone is sort of high on the D or the I or the S or the C and to work with people maybe on the enneagrams or whatever to to really see, the things that could take you months and months and months to figure out about someone you can actually have in the now or by just letting them complete those tests. So I think there’s a lot of merit in the sort of going round and round and round with all the interviews. But I think sort of getting a sort of a grip on how someone is going to succeed inside of the team to me is almost more important.


Marcus: Yeah. It seems like being able to tell if someone can code and react these days is pretty simple. Whether you use HackerRank or you look at their GitHub. I mean, assuming they’re not being devious, it probably isn’t too hard to say, do you know this? Do you have those minimum requirements? And I think the personality tests like DISC profile and and gee whiz all the way back to a Myers Briggs. Right. And even before that, have long been used by employers to try and determine will this person succeed on the team? And yet I bet it’s still the biggest area of unknown until you hire them and drop them in. Do you agree or can these profiles really just paved the way for perfect hiring?


Etienne: I think ultimately it doesn’t compensate or take a circumstance into account. I know sometimes you take a DISC profile test or a personality test and you might be higher on one thing on the Monday and a little lower on that on the Friday. I also know there’s a challenge with aspirational versus reality.


So I think for perfect hiring, I mean if we’re on the topic of hiring, I love to do the whole six week small project type hiring where you really get to see someone deliver and work through the nuances of the project in a, hey, join us for six weeks. This is the beginning of your project, this is the end. And then at the end the results will speak for themselves and people will be able to say, man, the guy disappeared. But he showed up with an amazing product at the end of six weeks. I mean that could be as much of a red flag as someone who just cannot get their arms around the SPEC and is constantly coming back with clarifying questions. You’d almost want to have that person even if they don’t produce any results. So I guess, as you know, it’s a bit of a cat and mouse game.


Marcus: Yeah. I don’t think there’s any perfect hiring, but I really liked that six week idea. I’m curious, what impact does that have on the team? Do you actually bring, would you recommend like hiring somebody for six weeks on contract, having them come into the office, giving them a project and they’re at every standup and they’re collaborating with the team or are they isolated from the team? Do we want to imagine that if we include them with the teams dynamic that somehow it might be traumatic for the team if we just jerk them out after six weeks and they’re gone?


Etienne: I think, so I’ve done this a lot. I think it’s actually the team loves it. I think you’re giving the team a reassurance that they’re important enough that if there isn’t a consensus at the end of the six weeks that their voice counts. And I usually ask my team to evaluate the person on a couple set criteria. So it’s not just a verbal processing at the end of the six weeks. And I love using a method called, well it’s meant to de-correlate the errors. So you don’t have people just talk, you have people fill out little post-it notes so they aren’t influencing each other. I mean that’s really tough. But I think it also helps the candidate. The candidate that gets to suss out the team and I would say a so so result is usable code at the end of those six weeks or maybe they’ve written up something that is actually super important.


Best case scenario, the person gets hired and sort of has a running start and then I would say worst case scenario is actually everyone wins because the person that you thought this would work out didn’t. And I guess the worst case scenario is if you really want them, but they decide they don’t want to work with you. I guess that really sucks that that’s actually happened to me one time. So, but I like it because, and then you also compensate them for their time. You’re not getting any free work out of them and it’s no harm no foul when it’s done. And actually it could be anywhere from two weeks to three months depending on the project.


Marcus: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Thank you for breaking that down for us. I want to go back to personality profiling just for a second because I have another question for you. So well, let’s say we use standardized on the DISC profile, right? And everyone on your team had it. Is the goal to find candidates who look like everyone else, which seems like it creates a lot of homogeny within your team. Or is the goal to have a real diversification of styles and then be able to deal with those challenges?


Etienne: Absolutely the latter. I think intuitively we probably know that. But having a couple dominant people on a team, I’m sure you can just see that train smash them from a mile away. For me it all depends on how people handle conflict and how they handle disagreements or uncertainty. And I guess this will kind of bring us back to emotional intelligence. But I think, and one test that I also had people do was how they show up when there is disagreement and conflict. And again, I’m going to forget that it was a quadrant as well. There was avoidance, there was collaboration and there was two others, I forget. But I think just knowing that stuff about each other is great.


Now I would say that there is a bit of a caveat here, which is the legalities of not hiring someone because of their personality profile. So I don’t want to go into that space. But to answer your question, I love having a diverse team. It’s, as far as personality profiles go, I mean I love diversity overall, but for personality profiles you’ll just see at certain stages some person or some profile will take the baton and run with something. And I think that’s really great for a team.


Marcus: Yes, and thank you for mentioning this show does not awfully offer legal advice of any kind. It seems like I really like, of course we all want to be inclusive and diversity is an important part of that. So I don’t think anybody’s going to be against that. But you do mention an important idea. How we handle conflict. Because if you have a very dominant person on the team and you find that an interview candidate is also very dominant, I think that it would might be tempting to say either we don’t hire them or we don’t put them in the same project or we sort of keep, this is going to sound terrible. Like let’s keep the lions in separate cages. Right.


But the reality is maybe that there’s an opportunity for training for improving our skills. Because at least I’m a big believer that these conflict management skills are things that anyone can learn. So maybe they actually provide us with more opportunities to grow rather than just staying comfortable. Well, we’ve got this person’s our dominant. We can’t have any more of them.


Etienne: Yes. And I think this is what I also see in our 7CTOs forums because we also have many personalities, styles or conflict, and actually leaning into conflict. For some reason, culturally, it’s almost like we’re all in the avoiding phase-


Marcus: Yes we are.


Etienne: Or you just have the, and actually we talk about this a lot in 7CTOs and actually meta and as the people running the forums that if you think about those four stages of forming, norming, storming, performing, I forget the exact flow, but when people start feeling safe with each other, conflict is bound to happen. And I think for us as managers, it’s a fearful place. I don’t know why we as humans have a big problem with this. I know as a South African, I’ve been accused of being way too comfortable with conflict. But, I think to lean in and to say, you know what?


This is actually good for the group. And I’m not talking about con, I’m talking about when people get really mad at each other and when there’s real disagreements to as a leader, be able to say, to not think of it as the individual so much, but to try and think of it more as the community or as what is good for the group, and for the group right now it is good that persons A, B and C are disagreeing vehemently on this, of course it’s our job to make sure that there isn’t, that we’re still within the ethics of the company and the other rules of engagement. But I think to not avoid the conflict is a real courageous move to make. Now, for introverts or if you’re very high on supportive, that’s very, very difficult to do.


And I think we as CTO types will often use those moments, especially if it’s with our CEOs to just capitulate and just say, you know what? I just want to get out of this conflict. Whatever it is you wanted, I’ll do it. Everything’s cool. And then it’s even worse when we are managing our people, we tend to fall on our swords and kind of give them what they want. And I think this is where the EQ level, why EQ is so critical for us as leaders, is to understand when that anxiety is happening inside of us as leaders to be aware of it, to see, oh, hang on, I’m really freaked out right now. I kind of want to run into the corner and assume the fetal position and hide it under a blankie. But to be like, okay, I’m aware of what’s happening to me right now as this conflict is happening. How do I now manage? What are my tools to actually manage and regulate what’s happening inside of me so that I can show up as my most adult resourceful self in those situations?


Marcus: Yeah, I think you hit on the tool, the first tool that I hear talked about so often and it really is the hardest and that’s the awareness that something’s happening. You mentioned like figuring out that what I really want to do is go hide in the corner with my blankie and I’ve been there. I am totally conflict avoidant, but figuring out that that’s a sign for me to pay attention. Kind of that meta conversation. You might think about it as stepping outside yourself or having a little homonculus on your shoulder. Something where you’re observing yourself and you’re saying, I’m really getting freaked out right now, aren’t I? I wonder what’s happening. And it’s kind of that curiosity. I heard it in your voice like, oh, this is interesting. And it moves from scary and awful and reactive to interesting and maybe full of possibilities about how we could act rather than how we’ve always acted before.


Etienne: Yes. And I heard a fascinating interview actually while I was in South Africa, where a psychologist was explaining that how from a very young age we’re told not to feel the emotions that we’re feeling. And so when you’re like, Mommy, I’m really afraid. And then your mom’s like, no, you’re not afraid.


Marcus: Right. Don’t be afraid.


Etienne: Oh, and so we just suffer this whole youth of people not validating our emotions. And so what happens as adults, when we’re in these situations where the CEO is expecting something from you that literally scares you, or your team is not satisfied with a certain decision you’ve made or with the direction you’re taking. We start feeling these emotions and then we start saying, well, hang on. If I was a real leader, I wouldn’t feel these emotions. I’m not allowed to feel these emotions. And then as you start acting out in ways that are completely unbecoming to any adult, and I think it’s quite amazing to to see that.


Marcus: Yeah. It’s almost, I love that you threw in the little bit about the real leader, right? The real leader wouldn’t feel this way. I think I’ve actually been in this situation where then the picture of a real leader comes maybe from a film like Braveheart and all of a sudden I find myself like metaphorically out front on a horse with a sword trying to be that. And I think to everyone else it just looks ridiculous. It’s not effective. And people have told me later like, well that was weird. That wasn’t like anything you’ve ever done yet. Of course I was trying to be a quote real leader.


Etienne: Exactly. And I think what fairly perpetuates the problem is when we look at our peers and we see their direct reports maybe loving and approving them. We start doubting, well why don’t people want to, I don’t feel like people look at me the same way they’re looking at Susie or… And then you start thinking, okay, well now the problem lies with me and Susie is now a way better leader than I am. And again, this all goes back to as children you kind of suss out constantly what’s working and what isn’t working.


Marcus: Who’s in the in group and who’s in the out group.


Etienne: Absolutely. And I mean I to this day I’m a healthy 47 year old male and I can still lose it when I feel that someone isn’t giving me the necessary accolades. Not from an ego standpoint but from a self doubt like wow, am I, did I do well today or, and this is just where again EQ, all these things boil down to our emotional quotient. Like what are we showing up with every single day where we are not just trying to feed this beast, but we are actually mature and really understanding how to be aware of ourselves, how to manage ourselves, how to be aware of the social environment, and then how to manage those relationships. Super simple.


Marcus: And yet so hard to do and all of it takes practice. I hope there’s, the people that are listening… First, I hope if you’re listening and this sounds like you, I hope you can know that if Etienne and I can do this, you can do it. Like that’s just the reality and yeah, I butchered his name. But if Etienne and I can pull off becoming a little bit more self aware than we were 10 years ago, you can certainly pull this off and you can move in that direction. But you have, are probably working against 30 or 40 or 50 years worth of reflexive learning that you have started learning when you were very little. And I’ll be honest, I want to comment on that. That were Susie likes, if my team lead was more beloved than I was team lead, then I was, I would start to feel a little afraid. Maybe I’d need to worry, maybe Susie is going to take my job. Maybe my CEO would like Susie better than me. And it comes back to very like grade school kinds of competition then.


Etienne: Absolutely. And then it starts overriding, and this is just the nature of how we are wired with the central nervous system going through the Amygdala, which is the emotional HQ, before it even gets to your logical prefrontal cortex, it goes through the emotional HQ of your brain and it overrides then our ability to logically think through… The thing that you’re good at then becomes something you absolutely cannot do because you are so, there’s an override. And so to again, to understand when I’m doing this at my best, I am cool, I’m calm, I’m collect. Even though the rage or the anger or the disappointment or the concern, or the confusion is with me. I am not, it doesn’t come over me and control me. I can actually say, okay, hang on. There’s something happening here causing this for me. Now it’s not them. It’s not something, it’s just me. And so like I said, that’s when it’s at my best. When I’m at my worst, I’m a blubbering fool.


Marcus: Yeah, I’m right there with you and I love what you said because it’s not that you don’t feel those things. It’s not pretending you don’t feel afraid and nervous and anxious and competitive and angry. It’s stepping back and becoming aware that you have choices about how you handle what’s inside you and that only you’re responsible for what’s inside you. No one else is. When I remember I have three kids and growing up, one of them would say, well, he made me mad and I’d say he can’t make you anything. You became angry, but he did not make that, you know? Yeah.


Etienne: So what I find very helpful, and maybe this is a plug, but it’s very helpful to have your peers and be able to just say, I spoke with my CEO. I didn’t like the way she said something. Hey guys, if I, what do you think? What’s happening for you? What am I feeling? And I think it’s okay to rely on other people to help you through those emotions. I think oftentimes when we hear emotional intelligence, we think, well it’s a me thing. Just like IQ is, it’s all me, me, me. It’s like it’s my IQ, it’s my EQ. But while, and this book says this Emotional Intelligence 2.0 says, IQ cannot change but your EQ can and to really rely on a group to help you increase and improve your EQ. And not to think that like IQ, it’s something that just is and can’t change.


And I just have to deal with the consequences now. Something that you can work especially with a group to help you sanity check some of the emotions you’re feeling and tend to have the group be able to say to you, hey man, just sounds like you’re not willing to own that this is what happened and so chill out. You just own it and move on. And it’s much easier to do that with people that you trust and that you can understand, knows what you’re going through. Than with some random strangers who don’t have a clue of why this job is so hard to do.


Marcus: Absolutely. Etienne, thank you so much for being on the show. Where can people find out more about you and your work at 7CTOs?


Etienne: Very simple. It’s the number seven and then C-T-O-S dot com and we’re also active on YouTube, so we also have a podcast aimed at CTOs called CTO Studio. And it’s conversations I like to have as a that I think CTOs should be in. So it’s just fun conversations. So yeah, and the CTO Studio.


Marcus: Wonderful. Thank you so much for being on the show today.


Announcer: Thank you for listening to programming leadership. You can keep up with the latest on the podcast at and on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever fine podcasts are distributed. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next time.


Announcer: This has been a HumblePod Production. Stay humble.

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