Sophia Azizian is an Assurance Partner and CIS Talent Leader at Ernst & Young, based in its Moscow office. We talked to her about the role that emotional intelligence has played in her career, the challenges of balancing the demands of family and work — and why prioritising and time management are key to success.
What have you learned about emotional intelligence in your career?
Most, if not all, people have biases and it’s actually quite a process to identify them and then try to overcome them. When I did my training I was surprised I had them. Also that it was a big presumption that women are not biased or automatically support inclusive behaviours. I think when we talk about inclusive culture, which Ernst & Young [EY] is really trying to achieve, we need to have different people at the table — it’s not just about gender. But, of course, gender brings certain items to the fore. For me, when I had my first child, we had almost no senior women at that stage who had children. As such, we didn’t have a room where I could breastfeed my child. We now have a separate room for this — but someone had to bring it up as a change to be made.
How do you use emotional intelligence in the way you work and how you adapt to change?
The hardest time for me was when I started having children. I came back to work full-time after three months with my first, which was very quick. A month later one of my junior managers came into the office in tears. She had watched me come back quickly and did the same and couldn’t manage it — but she didn't have the same support and was working long hours. We never know what someone else’s situation really is, everybody is different — and I am careful now when people ask me how quickly I came back to work. We need to be realistic about what we can manage as individuals — and not make assumptions about ourselves or anyone else.
It was also hard because little children don’t care what kind of career you have! They need you — and you need to suddenly really manage your time. My children were very good for me, though — I realised how much time I was spending on work and the effect that was having on me physically and emotionally. I also understood that if I continued to work the way I had been doing, without looking after myself, I could not sustain things. I learned to switch off my phone and be there for my family, and I don’t work weekends unless there is a deadline. In the office, we also work as a team and try not to take holidays at the same time, so if there’s a project we can rely on the fact someone will be there to look after it — and really relax while we're away.
How do you manage your time?
I plan my time in my calendar and schedule events far in advance. If, somehow, I have to be away when there is an important family occasion, like a school concert, then I make sure my husband attends. You don’t always get it right, but if you prioritise certain things, you do manage to see your family, close friends, colleagues and clients — but you can’t just leave it to chance. I also had to get rid of things that were eating my time and energy and be ruthless about saying no. The art of saying no is hard.
How do you meet the needs of multiple stakeholders, such as demanding clients, and the needs of family members?
If it’s a new client, it can take some time to work through the fact that they have to trust you will deliver. In many cases, people who want you there 24/7 aren’t sure of what is happening or are nervous and need that support. It’s a case-by-case basis though; there are some people who are more relaxed, there are some who need to control everything. In that situation you can manage it by saying: “If I am in a concert, I will not respond to your emails — but I will definitely come back to you when I step out.” It’s about good communication.
What’s the most useful piece of advice about emotional intelligence that you’ve been given?
A senior female client once said: “Don’t be afraid to speak up and say what is bothering you.” I didn’t like conflict and I would avoid it — but if you do that then things only get worse, and you end up with conflict anyway! If you have something occupying your mind, it is the only thing you think about — and you get into a negative spiral that can eat you from inside. Speaking up is a freeing of energy.