BetterUp spoke with Dr. Melvin Smith, a new member of BetterUp’s Science Board, organizational behavior professor, and executive education faculty director at the Case Weatherhead School of Management. He shared how his fascination with human behavior and time as a marketing executive sparked his curiosity to explore the leader-employee relationship. This curiosity led Dr. Smith to pursue a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management from the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business.
After years of studying the impact of coaching and emotional intelligence in the workplace, he co-authored the book Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth with Richard Boyatzis and Ellen Van Oosten.
In addition to research and leading executive education programs, Dr. Smith is making a difference in coaching and coaching education through global board service with the Graduate School Alliance for Education in Coaching and the International Coaching Federation Thought Leadership Institute.
BU: Can you tell us about your background in organizational behavior and how you became interested in researching the relationship between leaders and employees?
Smith: The roots of my background in organizational behavior started in high school when I had a psychology class. From that point on, I was fascinated with human behavior. I started my undergrad studies as a psychology major with the intention of getting a Ph.D. However, I became enamored with business and went on to get an MBA in marketing.
The thing that fascinated me about marketing was consumer behavior, so I spent 15 years in sales and marketing management. During my corporate career, I experienced so much at a number of Fortune 500 companies that puzzled me about the leader-employee relationship and the organization-employee relationship. It reached the point where I decided I wanted to leave the corporate world and study those relationships to influence them. That’s how I came full circle and entered the organizational behavior field.
BU: What role does emotional intelligence play in leadership today, and how does it impact business performance?
Smith: In my view, it’s table stakes. There was a time when emotional intelligence was a nice thing to have. You could add it to your technical and functional competence, giving you a leg up. But as more and more people become aware of its importance and develop the capacity to be more emotionally intelligent, it’s becoming less optional and more of a requirement.
Emotional intelligence is key to understanding yourself, effectively managing yourself, and effectively understanding and managing relationships with others. That’s much of my work in executive education – helping leaders develop that emotional intelligence capacity.
BU: Where is the best place to start building emotional intelligence as a skill?
Smith: Self-awareness is where to start. I believe self-awareness is a gateway into effectively understanding and managing others. It’s about spending time figuring out one’s own strengths and weaknesses, desires, and motivations by being introspective and reflective. Then you can develop your emotional intelligence more broadly to effectively interact with and relate to others.
BU: What inspired you to write your book, Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth?
Smith: It was a desire to share the approach and views that my co-authors, Richard Boyatzis and Ellen Van Ootsen, and I have around coaching and what makes coaching effective in terms of enabling sustained, desired change in individuals.
Our approach to coaching is called Coaching with Compassion, where it’s not just about an instrumental process of helping people achieve goals. Instead, it’s an effort to connect with the person emotionally and build that relationship to help them articulate an ideal vision for their future.
BU: Why is compassion necessary for effective coaching, and how do you cultivate compassion in leadership?
Smith: I think it’s important because coaching is largely about the relationship. It’s being able to connect emotionally and help draw on the power of positive emotions when someone thinks about their passions and dreams of their ideal life. You can’t coach in the way that we promote if you don’t have compassion.
To cultivate it as a leader, it requires a mindset shift. Coaching is not about me trying to get someone to do what I want them to do or even helping someone do what they feel others want them to do. That’s an approach that we call Coaching for Compliance. To cultivate compassion, you need to flip that and say it’s not about what I want for the person. It’s about really connecting with them around what they want.
And when you can help a person reach that positive emotional space, you can feel that and join them there. It’s fulfilling and sustaining for coaches too. That’s what we love about it.
BU: Why did you join the BetterUp science board, and what areas of research are you excited to delve into with the team?
Smith: What piqued my interest was seeing the growth of BetterUp in such a short time, reaching such a large scale. Looking deeper, the mission is so closely aligned with how my colleagues and I view coaching and the role we think that coaching can and should play in our society.
The notion of helping everyone live with clarity, purpose, and passion is what we’re all about, so it was a natural alignment. Being invited to influence the process as it unfolds was a no-brainer because one of my objectives is to share the power of coaching with as many people in the world as possible.
One thing I’m interested in exploring is to what extent coaching increases the returns of leadership development programs. I’m also excited to work with the BetterUp Labs team and dig into crafting and answering some very interesting questions based on the amount of data collected on the coaching relationship.
BU: What was your biggest ‘aha’ moment as a coach?
Smith: I realized there’s more benefit and advantage that comes from being able to ask that right and powerful question than there is in offering what you feel is a very sage piece of advice. You can get that person to sit back and say, hmm, and you see their eyes go up, you see the wheels start turning, and they’re figuring things out for themselves. It’s not about the knowledge I can impart to you and what wisdom I can share, but as a coach it’s about finding those right questions. There’s so much power in that.
BU: What excites you most about the future of coaching in business?
Smith: I’m most excited about the fact that there’s a movement to make coaching more accessible. It’s one of the things that’s exciting to me about BetterUp, this whole idea of creating a platform to make coaching scalable and available to everyone, everywhere.
Coaching has tremendous benefits for individuals and organizations, but relatively speaking, it’s still reserved for a small slice of the world. I’m looking forward to helping change that.
BetterUp Science Board
BetterUp was built by a team of world-leading researchers and PhDs across the fields of positive psychology and human performance. BetterUp’s Science Board is composed of leading researchers in the fields of positive psychology and human performance and includes world-renowned luminaries such as Martin Seligman, Adam Grant, Shawn Achor, and Quinetta Roberson.