Avnet’s Superstar CEO Phil Gallagher Believes EQ Trumps IQ Every Day


Phil Gallagher came to believe at a relatively early age that emotional intelligence is a better guide for leadership than IQ and he has made it the hallmark of his leadership style as the CEO of Avnet, a Fortune 500 technology distributor and solutions provider. Now in his 40th year with the company, Gallagher leads more than 15,000 employees across 140 countries and enjoys a remarkable 91 percent CEO approval rating from his employees on Glassdoor.

So, where did this successful leader learn this lesson? Why, on the football field, of course, when as a freshman player who was still on the diminutive side, his coach told him that he’d be smart not to get too invested in ever playing varsity football.

“You’re just too small,” the coach said dismissively.

Another player might have hung up his pads and cleats, but Gallager responded by doubling down on his strength training and putting on enough muscle to wind up captaining the varsity his senior year. Better still, he managed to bulk up enough to play college ball at Westchester University in Pennsylvania.

Gallagher always wondered whether his old coach had simply been insensitive or somehow knew what it took to motivate his underdeveloped player. The answer didn’t matter so much as the lesson it conveyed, which he applied years later as a volunteer high school coach: the kind of tough love his old coach laid on him wasn’t effective for everybody.

“Some kids need a kick in the butt all the time,” Gallagher said. “Others need you to throw your arm around their shoulders and nurture them a bit, and suddenly they’re a whole new person. It’s the same in the business world when you deal with a staff that’s very diverse.”

Gallager is not only Avnet’s CEO, he is also its unofficial Chief Motivational Officer, the kind of high EQ (emotional intelligence) leader who believes it’s not how smart you are — “everybody here is probably within plus or minus 5-10% of each other from an intelligence perspective,” he said — but how in sync you are with others. “What I see with careers that get derailed, or fail even to get started in the first place, is a lack of emotional intelligence,” he said. “It can be as simple as saying “I” all the time. Not being self-aware. Saying “we” works so much better!”

Gallagher says that those who wish to rise through the ranks to lead an organization of Avnet’s size, scope and complexity have to develop the ability not only to be authentic, themselves, but also to meet different kinds of people where they are, which is not always where you want them to be. Gallagher offers several tried and trusted techniques for developing high-EQ leadership skills.

These include:

  • Be an open book: Teams look to leaders to model expected values, so Gallagher models transparency whether he’s sharing with leadership what they expect from him or meeting with the latest crop of student interns to coach them on how they can best conduct themselves to be successful at Avnet—and throughout their careers.
  • Eschew the quick fix: Gallagher doesn’t believe in quick fixes and argues that integrity, the first among core values, ought to be developed in the choice we make and ways we behave in the here and now—and over time. “There’s an old saying,” says Gallagher, “People build trust penny by penny and spend it like a buck. You have to prioritize standing by your word.”
  • Build relationships: Working on our EQ helps us develop stronger relationships, which are the key to success in Gallagher’s book. “No, being nice is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. It’s not hard and it’s free. Say ‘thank you’ and write thank you cards,” said Gallagher, who continued for decades to send Christmas cards to the man who gave him a tip leading to his first job at Avnet.

“We have a saying around Avnet,” Gallagher said. “Never throw your teammate under the bus unless you’re holding hands. It’s our way of acknowledging that there will be conflict and disagreements but that well-meaning people can solve their differences—but only if they do so face to face.”

Like an open book.

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