Eric Benhamou: Betting on social intelligence

Founders nurturing their startups through incubation shouldn’t confuse social intelligence, also known as emotional intelligence (EI), for charisma—a trait often associated with storytellers like Virgin Group’s Sir Richard Branson and the late Steve Jobs of Apple Computer. Take the example of Eric Benhamou, an even-tempered Frenchman born in Algeria who moved to Silicon Valley in 1975 to attend Stanford University before founding communications equipment startup Bridge Communications five years later.

Benhamou raised $1.8 million in initial funding from venture capitalists, won early customers, adroitly maneuvered a critical shift in strategy and products, and eventually sold Bridge in 1987 to networking industry leader 3Com for $151 million—without projecting a big ego and stand-out personality. Benhamou later became 3Com’s CEO and chairman, guiding the combined entity to more than $5 billion in annual sales.

“Benhamou is a nerd who can’t give a presentation,” said 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe in 1998. “I’ve learned from watching him that you don’t have to be charismatic to be a great CEO.”

Even a charismatic leader like Virgin’s Branson acknowledges that listening is a key ingredient of his communications prowess. “It really is a crucial element for success, and an attribute every leader has to master,” he wrote in his blog. That mastery requires practice, he warns. “It’s easy to think of listening as a passive activity—something that happens naturally simply by being in the room or in front of a screen while somebody is talking. But it takes effort and focus.” 2

Benhamou, who now heads venture capital firm Benhamou Ventures in Palo Alto, emphasizes resilience and “grit” over intellectual prowess and charisma when vetting startup founders. “Shit will happen but you have to recover gracefully,” he cautioned startup founders in an interview for my book Spinning into Control. Like a duck floating smoothly on a pond but paddling frantically below, “for customers and partners, you need to show control and determination.” Emotional maturity and social skills condition success in such situations, Benhamou told me. Mustering persistence and patience, byproducts of emotional maturity, helps more than charm.

“I’ve learned from watching him that you don’t have to be charismatic to be a great CEO,” said 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe.”
Kirsner, S, “The Legend of Bob Metcalf,” Wired, November 1998

Leadership experts Daniel Goldman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee explain that a startup founder with “high EI” monitors his or her own emotions and how they affect others (self-awareness), and the emotional climate around them (social awareness). In general, they exude self-confidence. But a balanced understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, rather a narcissistic, inflated ego, fuels that confidence.

Like manual skills, EI can only be honed through repetition. “In short, making change requires practice,” write the management experts. “It takes doing and redoing, over and over, to break old neural habits.” A leader must rehearse the EI behaviors underlying cooperation and conversing “until he’s mastered it,” they urge.3

After having seen some of their investments founder due to the personal foibles of entrepreneurs, Benhamou and his partners now look for entrepreneurs who seem mature and who seek help when they need it. “We’ve moved away from deals where there were smart founders without high social IQ,” he explains. The trait is rare to find, but critical, he added. “In many of these crises where companies spin out of control, the recovery must be engineered by the entrepreneur. The investor doesn’t have the ability to do that for them.”

1 3Com was acquired by Hewlett Packard in 2010.

2 Branson, R (2015), “The Dying Art of Listening,

Goldman, Boyatzis, and McKee (2001) “Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance,” Harvard Business Review, December 2001, Cambridge, MA.

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