Back to Interviews

Empowering Leaders with Emotional Intelligence

Written by:

As a seasoned HR professional with over 20 years of experience, Keca is an expert in various aspects of Human Resources.

Empowering Leaders with Emotional Intelligence

Empowering Leaders with Emotional Intelligence

In this insightful interview, Elena Sarango-Muniz traces her inspiring journey from Lima, Peru, to becoming the CEO and founder of Sarango Executive Coaching LLC in the United States.

With a career spanning over 25 years in human resources, Elena reveals the key moments, challenges, and lessons that shaped her into a leadership coach, HR consultant, and speaker. Her narrative is a tribute to the power of mentorship, the critical importance of leaving one’s comfort zone, and the transformative effect of emotional intelligence on leadership effectiveness.

Elena offers valuable insights into the evolving practices of HR, the significance of fostering a growth mindset within organizations, and her approach to enhancing human connections and employee engagement in modern work environments.

This interview is a treasure trove of wisdom for today’s leaders and HR professionals, highlighting the journey of a remarkable individual and her impact on the field of human resources and leadership.

Career Journey

HR – Could you walk us through your career journey, highlighting the pivotal moments that led you to become a leadership coach, HR consultant, and speaker? What were the challenges and lessons learned along the way?

Elena – It’s not an accident that this question is the first one here to answer. I just recently spoke at a client’s company about mentorship, sponsoring, and coaching, where I weaved my career journey into the talk. This is what I shared:

I grew up in Lima, Peru and at age 22, after getting my business degree at the University of Lima, I decided to come to the US to pursue my American dream — to be an executive at an American company. I studied for a Master’s in hospitality, and I started working at The Ritz-Carlton company while I was going to school. My first job was as an overnight front desk agent, working the graveyard shift, which I consider one of the most important jobs of my life. Here is where I learned about being of service to others, listening to the client, and connecting emotionally with them. I had no idea that this experience, 10 years in total, would shape the future I love now living.

After finishing my Master’s, my career shifted completely, which I now understand was supposed to be the way to become who I am today. I was offered a full-time job as a training manager, my first job in HR, and then I was HR manager, a director of HR and became part of the executive team reporting to the general manager.

This GM, an amazing and inspiring leader, is the one who told me during my yearly performance review: “For you to grow, you need to go.” I thought he was firing me, but then I realized he was unlocking my potential. He was seeing something I couldn’t see in myself. I had more to give and more to learn, and it was not going to happen in that safe environment I was so comfortable in, I needed to get out of my comfort zone. I left the hotel and the industry, and my HR career took off exponentially.

I have worked for other industries since then, facing many challenges and difficult situations. Almost 30 years after I arrived in this amazing country, I can now say I have accomplished my American dream. I am now the CEO and founder of my own leadership coaching and HR consulting business, Sarango Executive Coaching LLC. One key truth here, though — I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the mentors, coaches, and sponsors who guided me throughout my career.

HR Leadership Experience

HR – Over your 25+ years in HR, what has been the most significant change in HR practices, and how have you adapted to it?

Elena – I have always worked in international companies, supporting leaders and employees from all corners of the world. These companies have all been progressive and had a great culture. Therefore, the human resources teams I have belonged to have always been incredibly adaptable, innovative, and inclusive.

I would say that the biggest change I’ve seen throughout my HR career has been the on-site vs. remote work. COVID is the biggest disruptor I’ve lived through in the way companies are led, therefore, HR’s biggest challenge and opportunity to influence. I was able to adapt to it based on my ability to bounce back and be flexible in the way I lead my teams. I hired the best, I created a trusting environment, and that’s why I trusted my employees to do what was expected of them regardless of where they were working from.

This change has presented many challenges for sure, but it is now becoming the normal, a hybrid, more flexible environment.

Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

HR – How does emotional intelligence (EI) directly impact a leader’s effectiveness?

Elena – EI has a huge impact on a leader’s effectiveness and success. EI is the missing link when STRATEGY intersects with PEOPLE, the glue that keeps purpose, vision, and people together. When a leader is self-aware, the most fundamental skill in EI, the team, the organization, and the world benefit from it.

A leader that is emotionally intelligent is not only able to identify and manage their own emotions, but they are also able to identify the emotions of others, relate to others, understand their teams and stakeholders, be empathetic and make better decisions, keeping the well-being of the employees and customers in mind.

Developing Emotional Intelligence

HR – What are some effective strategies for developing emotional intelligence within a team or organization?

Elena To develop EI, we not only can do it one leader at a time. As a matter of fact, in this rapidly changing world we live in, the most effective way is through team coaching. Some of the strategies I use are:

  • Identify patterns the team has — discussion
  • Identify patterns the team wants to create to be successful
  • Identify what skills are needed to get there
  • Use real case scenarios when things do not go well
  • Use real case scenarios of when things work best for the team
  • Bring it all together
  • Create a development plan that all team members are accountable for
  • Use EQ assessments to identify the team’s gaps and opportunities
  • Measure success

Cultivating Growth Mindsets

HR Could you share an example of a successful initiative you’ve led that fostered a growth mindset within an organization?

Elena When I started practicing coaching in the corporate environment, I immediately saw the transformation not only in the leaders I was coaching but also in myself as a leader of teams. This, in turn, impacted the way these individuals started to see themselves through new lenses, with growth mindsets. These transformations motivated me to start my own business so I could focus on making this happen 100% of my time.

Transforming Cultures

HR What are the key components of a successful culture transformation in a global corporate setting?

Elena In this changing world, cultural transformations are happening more and more often. One M&A, change of leadership, and disruptors such as COVID, spark the need to transform. Change is inevitable. What I usually do with my clients has four main components:

  1. Current story: Reflect, understand, and identify the current cultural identity. Feedback from all stakeholders is key here. What is the pain? What needs to change and why? What are the implications of not changing?
  2. New Story: The CEO and stakeholders decide what the new cultural identity needs to be to meet the needs of the future. Input from stakeholders must be welcomed systematically and unapologetically. What is the vision? What do they need to BE to get to that vision?
  3. Strategy: Establish goals, next steps, and people needed to accomplish a new identity. Ensure commitment is secured at all levels. Communicating the strategy at all levels is imperative, and doing it frequently is even more important.
  4. Implementation and communication: Communicating all of the above, embedding it in the entire ecosystem: employees, clients, processes, values, policies, etc., and establishing a process to check the temperature and adjust accordingly is critical.

The Importance of Human Connection

HR How do you maintain and foster human connections in increasingly digital and remote work environments?

Elena Making it a priority for each leader in the organization, starting with the top leadership team. It’s all about the shadow you cast as the leader of a team. If you connect effectively with others, up, sideways, and down the rest will follow.

Depending on the size of the organization, an initiative might need to be implemented to improve the quality and quantity of real conversations, and feedback-giving and receiving skills, flexibility, and negotiation skills must be developed. Put ROI gatekeepers in place. All this can be accomplished with remote teams, but they might require a different set of activities and tactics, still the connection can definitely be established, one conversation at a time, as it all starts with the leader.

Employee Engagement

HR In your extensive experience within HR, what strategies have you found to be most effective in boosting employee engagement?

Elena It is important to have a leadership team that cares and genuinely wants to take care of their employees. It starts with the leader showing up, being vulnerable, connecting with each one of the employees, communicating openly, having fun, not hiding anything. Engagement is built through trust, therefore building an environment that fosters openness and transparency is key.

One of the most effective strategies I have found to improve employee engagement is investing in their development. The majority of employees want to learn and advance. Giving them the tools, training, and time needed to develop will not only boost their engagement, but it will also make you the leader, become more engaged and fulfilled.

Employee Satisfaction

HR How do you measure and improve employee satisfaction within diverse teams, and can you share a success story where your intervention significantly improved team morale?

Elena Employee satisfaction can be measured through different KPIs such as turnover, sales, referrals, customer satisfaction, and more.

The best way to improve engagement is by identifying the specific areas where the scores are falling short, understanding the why behind those scores through focus groups, formal and informal chats with the employees, the CEO and executive team traveling to the different company locations and getting up and close with the employees, consequently developing a program or set of initiatives to address those gaps, and communicating this plan to the entire organization. This will not only improve engagement from within, but it will also attract the right candidates, and transform the culture of the organization.

For those individuals who do not feel comfortable in those formal or informal settings, an anonymous feedback mechanism is critical. This is what I implemented at one of my jobs, where there was no formal anonymous feedback system. I created a way for those employees to submit their concerns and ideas anonymously. It was very well received. I have also seen the effect of infusing “fun” into the organization. And when the fun comes from the top and is modeled by them, the effect is multiplied at all levels. Such events as celebrating Halloween with a team custom contest or office potlucks, watching a World Cup game together, or whatever it is that brings people together and feels like a community, have a very positive effect on the morale of the employees. It usually takes a fun leader to start it.

Leadership Development

HR What are the key components of a successful leadership development program, and how do you tailor these programs to meet the needs of leaders at different stages of their careers?

Elena – It all starts with a needs assessment since leaders at different stages of their careers will have different needs.

Customize learning paths for the different levels of leadership, as early career leaders might need a more structured skill-based development program than those more experienced leaders.

Coaching and mentoring are key elements of a leadership development program. Mentoring might be more appropriate for less senior, early-career individuals, while executive coaching would be a better option for high-level leaders. Senior leaders could serve as mentors and external coaches are best fitted for senior leadership coaching programs. Hands-on or experiential learning is also a key component of a program to develop more junior leaders, giving them the opportunity to practice and experience what they learn. Retreats and outside workshops are very effective.

Artificial Intelligence in HR

HR How do you see AI and machine learning technologies impacting HR practices?

Elena While AI brings many benefits to the HR function, the human touch HR employees provide to employees will always remain the top priority. AI is revolutionizing and improving processes such as recruitment and the candidate experience, decision-making based on objective data, ethical and privacy considerations, predictive analytics such as employee turnover rates and levels of engagement, automated training courses for different competencies, and many more.

Advice for Aspiring HR Professionals

HR What advice would you give to aspiring HR professionals who want to make a significant impact in their organizations?

Elena Develop your self-awareness by understanding who you are as a person and professional. Identify your strengths and weaknesses, and work towards closing the gaps or strengthening those areas you need to excel to be the professional that not only exudes confidence but also empathy and compassion. The best HR professionals I have worked with are the ones who truly listen and care about the employees, no matter what level, performance type, or personality. HR professionals are key to the organization from the moment a candidate comes through the door, all the way through the moment an employee is exited, and everything in between. Treating everyone with empathy and respect throughout the entire life cycle will have a significant impact on the organization. Do it with love, not with fear.