Leaders must master technical, social sides of banking

Editor’s note: This column was included in the May 30 version of The Pulse, a weekly BankBeat newsletter sent to subscribers.

Community bank leaders must master their operational role while understanding and responding to the emotional needs of those they oversee, said Robb Rempel, an executive vice president at community bank consulting firm Haberfeld. The need for leaders to master both responsibilities, though generally not prioritized in previous decades, will be crucial to keeping staff while fostering a positive work environment amid a broad shift in employee needs. 

I learned of the need for leaders to master both skills in late April during the Bank Holding Company Association spring seminar. Having a boss produce strong financial results is crucial but not the only consideration in assessing leadership skills, Rempel noted. He said solid leadership requires strong social skills and the ability to manage people. “Employees today desire a manager they want to work for. It wasn’t some specific thing they did,” Rempel said. “It’s how it felt to work for them.” 

The changing needs of the workforce were also highlighted in a 2022 Gartner survey in which nearly two-thirds of respondents reported their attitude toward the value of aspects outside of work has shifted following the pandemic. About the same number reported rethinking the role work plays in their lives, while more than half said they wanted to contribute more to society. 

This survey clashes with the traditional description of a great leader. Influential business leaders were sometimes described as being almost superhuman, with the ability to prioritize work above all else. Perhaps the most misleading assumption was leadership traits were inherent, not developed. “Great leaders are born, not made,” has been a common saying for years.  

However, recent analysis dispels these beliefs and shows leadership traits can be learned through developing “soft skills” — conflict resolution, empathetic listening, team-building and communication. A 2023 McKinsey report found employers were focused on the transactional parts of their workplace experience, while employees sought more of an emphasis on relationship factors. Among the top reasons employees had for quitting were not feeling valued by the organization or by their individual managers and not feeling a sense of belonging on the job. 

To foster belonging in the workplace, welcome ideas from everyone in your organization and practice open communication. Implement a system that allows employees to submit anonymous complaints to alleviate the pressure they face by directly addressing their manager with concerns. Leaders can implement team-building exercises allowing coworkers to openly share positive experiences they’ve recently had, or report constructive customer feedback.

Banks can also offer flexible working hours when possible to allow employees to attend family events or their children’s school activities and paid volunteering opportunities. Take Mankato-based BankVista, which offers employees 32 hours of volunteering work on an annual basis. These types of benefits make your employees more likely to stay because they know you care about their personal well-being. 

Leaders can mold a positive environment by mastering the technical parts of the job while consistently making staff feel welcomed and appreciated. Effective leadership requires nothing less. 

Sam Wilmes

Digital Managing Editor