COVID-19 has blurred the lines between employees’ personal and professional lives. They continue to experience significant stress as they juggle remote work with family responsibilities and deal with the mental health impacts of social isolation.
“These times demand leaders to lead with empathy, flexibility, and emotional intelligence,” says Nicole Colgan, chief people/culture officer for $1.8 billion asset TwinStar Credit Union in Lacey, Wash., and a member of the CUNA HR & Organizational Development Council Executive Committee. “They must lead and manage with the ‘whole person’ in mind.”
Some executives have difficulty admitting their shortcomings with soft skills and struggle to adapt.
“Many employers have historically taken the ‘leave your personal life at the door’ approach with their employees,” Colgan says. “The pandemic has forced personal and professional lives to collide. This has required leadership to be OK with a dog barking or a child interrupting a Zoom meeting. Flexibility and communication have become even more imperative during the pandemic.”
If leaders did not appreciate the importance of soft skills before the pandemic, they do now, notes Regier.
“Right out of the gate, the most critical skill was empathy,” he says. “Everyone was anxious, afraid, and stressed out. Leaders needed to understand and appreciate this struggle, as well as facilitate a balance between energy spent attending to each other’s well-being and energy spent adapting, pivoting, and innovating to stay relevant.”
Soft skills are often the differentiator between good and great leaders, and have a positive impact on bottom-line business metrics. Good soft skills increase trust, engagement, and loyalty.
When people feel safe, connected, and included, they give more of themselves and provide better service to customers.
But soft skills can be difficult to master.
“Soft skills are hard and hard skills are easy,” says Neville Billimoria, senior vice president and chief advocacy officer at $4.7 billion asset Mission Fed Credit Union in San Diego. “As we forge organizational climates and culture based on the collective impact and contributions of all stakeholders, it requires a different set of skills to convene, connect, coach, and champion success beyond historical frameworks.”
Progressive credit union leaders want to identify their skill gaps to elevate performance and potential. A good way to start is with an honest self-assessment.
Regier says leaders should ask employees three questions to determine if their soft skills need work:
Based on these answers, leaders can begin working on their soft skills.
“It is only through greater self-understanding and relational and emotional intelligence skills that lasting change can be achieved,” says Stankovic. “For some leaders, it is difficult to accept and/or resolve their shortcomings. Credit unions can enlist the help of their business partners, leagues, CUSOs, and other credit union networks for support.”
Weingart recalls one credit union CEO, a CML client, who realized he and his executive leadership team were caught up in the “transactional, process, and compliance” side of the business, leaving the “people issue” to the human resources department.
“They realized they lacked empathy,” she says. “In the midst of the pandemic, they all took a course on emotional intelligence and the CEO pulled them in for weekly discussions on empathy.
“When they conducted their employee survey at the end of the year,” Weingart continues, “the staff noted how engaged the leadership team was in helping them cope with issues, both personal and work-related—something they had never shared before.”
Another CEO at a large credit union in Florida launched regular “listening sessions” with small groups of employees via Zoom. He would open the discussion by saying, “Tell me what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling about life and your job right now.”
“He had to learn to be quiet and listen intently,” says Weingart. “It was challenging because he was used to fixing things or jumping in to defend a process.
“He started asking questions, digging deeper, and heard things he never expected, sometimes critical. He told me it was freeing to hear staff openly share ideas and wishes—and then to start working on them.”
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