Like a boss

How to Nurture Organizational Intelligence in Four Steps

by Cara Cannella

Renie Cavallari has spent her career giving professionals the tools to transform themselves and their organizations. Here, she offers four ways to start expanding organizational—and emotional—intelligence today.

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When Renie Cavallari enters an elevator, she pays attention to those standing within a few square feet. Rather than stare at her phone, she makes eye contact, asking how they are or what brings them to town. As founder of Aspire and CEO for more than two decades, she’s made a habit of building connections — with clients and within their organizations — with deliberate intent, as if exercising a muscle.

Based in Phoenix, Aspire offers marketing and leadership consultation, strategy and training to boutique and international hospitality clients, serving more than a million employees through its programs.

Covering subjects from team-building to cultural alignment, Cavallari is adamant about helping people cultivate an asset that leads to top-performing leaders and companies: emotional intelligence. High emotional engagement at work (even in the workplace elevator), she says, leads directly to organizational intelligence, a key differentiator in today’s competitive global market.

To boost creativity and problem-solving skills within and beyond your organization, she recommends starting with the four tips below.

1. Start with yes.

On any team, Cavallari notes, you’ll find people at different stages of life and work. Inevitably, you’ll encounter what she likes to call CAVE people: those who are “constantly against virtually everything.”

When confronted with a person whose default position is “no” (we all know them), you’ll want to begin with a mindset of “yes.” Engage those who can suck a room’s energy with their negativity by saying, “I understand this isn’t working for you. What’s the first thing that needs to happen in order for this to work?” By acknowledging them, Cavallari says, you can help shift them into a space to think differently about a perceived obstacle.

2. Prioritize connection over chemistry.

Many people think connection and chemistry are the same thing, Cavallari points out, but they’re distinct. When there’s chemistry, you feel something in common — it’s like sharing a rhythm. So, what happens when you don’t have the good fortune of feeling that right away?

According to Cavallari, the answer is not to disassociate or pull away. Instead, a lack of chemistry creates an opportunity to build a meaningful connection by focusing on the other person and finding out what they’re about. Through strong connection comes greater rapport, and rapport leads to trust. But it’s not always easy to get there.

When a new employee comes into an organization and restructures positions and processes, she explains, that can break connection. The same goes for two organizations merging. “When we don’t find ways to connect, to address fears between two cultures, it looks like resistance,” Cavallari says. “So you must intentionally create connection, building the kinds of relationships that allow you to lead change.”

3. Use clean communication.

The stronger our connection, the better our communication, Cavallari says, pointing to her relationship with Aspire’s COO. “We can sit down to think about difficult problems and be in complete disagreement and work through it easily because we have a strong connection,” she says. They work so well together in large part because of their clean communication.

While communicating clearly, she continues, is telling it like it is, clean communication requires the speaker to take ownership of how those words are received. The difference is subtle but important.

“In clean communication, if it comes out of my mouth, I’m responsible for it landing effectively with my audience so they can actually hear it,” says Cavallari, pointing out what can be the challenging nuance and subtext inherent in language. “We often think people aren’t listening, but maybe we’re not working hard enough to make sure they hear it.”

4. Create a mindset of choice.

While Cavallari is grateful to all of her great mentors, male and female, she believes that women leaders need to be especially committed to the development of other women. That’s why she started a girls’ leadership organization, Wings to Fly Summer Camp, now merged with Girls Rule Foundation. It’s also why she actively engages with women through coaching and her blog posts and gives pro bono speeches to organizations that help girls and women.

“I have a village that helps me to have the life I want,” she says, a village that helps her nurture personal feelings of empowerment and encourage others to do the same.

For Cavallari, that empowerment means creating a mindset of choice: How do I want to stand out from the clutter? How can I be courageous and bold and at same time be gracious in that boldness? Shining a light on others reflects back on you, she says, and she’s heartened to see that form of collaboration among employees every day.