Seeking soft skills

Empathy, communication, and emotional intelligence are must-haves for effective leaders.

May 25, 2021

A fading leadership type is the demanding, inflexible boss who is focused on executing tasks without question or complaint from the workforce.

Such leadership, experts say, invites employees to feel marginalized because their opinions are not valued, and their feelings are not considered.


  • The pandemic has created a greater need for leaders with soft skills.
  • Critical soft skills include empathy, emotional intelligence, and adaptive communication.
  • Board focus: Soft skills improve member and employee retention and engagement.

Today, due in part to the many challenges brought on by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, “soft” management skills such as empathy, emotional intelligence, and adaptive communication have come to the forefront.

They’re especially helpful for connecting with and managing remote workers. “Leadership is about transitioning from master of tasks to mover of people,” says Nate Regier, CEO of Next Element Consulting.

This emotional way of connecting with employees leads to better communication, understanding, and adaptability.

This often results in collaborative, innovative solutions that move the business forward because employees are more motivated when they feel their leaders care about their feelings and their success.

3 critical skills

Instead of focusing solely on market trends, spreadsheets, and business metrics to make decisions, leaders with soft skills also prioritize employees’ emotional well-being and respond to their needs in a caring way.

Critical soft skills include:

1. Empathy, or the ability to relate to what others are thinking and feeling.

“Validating emotions—or even sharing your own—and being in that moment with someone else builds trust and rapport and allows leadership to take meaningful action on what they learn,” says Tobi Weingart, senior manager for CUNA Creating Member Loyalty (CML).

Compassion and empathy are intertwined.

“Compassion is the practice of demonstrating that humans are valuable, capable, and responsible in every interaction,” Regier says. “Treating people as valuable means trusting intentions, showing empathy, and creating a safe space to be vulnerable without fear of judgment.”

In its “2020 State of Workplace Empathy” report, Businessolver indicated that 76% of workers surveyed said they believe an empathetic organization inspires more motivated employees, up from 65% in 2019.

2. Emotional intelligence. This ability to manage and adapt your emotions in positive ways to empathize with others can reduce conflict and increase understanding and cooperation.

An emotionally intelligent leader is highly effective in communication, decision making, conflict resolution, and team building.

“Throughout the pandemic we needed to make quick decisions, employ contingent business plans, and work effectively,” says Brandi Stankovic, Ed.D., chief operating officer and chief strategy officer for CU Solutions Group. “As the dust settles, emotional intelligence will be critical to ensure we are hearing the needs of our staff and members.”

3. Adaptive communication. Good leaders recognize that people have different personalities, backgrounds, and perspectives. To be effective, leaders must adapt how they communicate depending on who they are talking to.

“Great leaders do not just learn about individual differences; they also learn how to adjust their communication style to connect, motivate, and inspire different types of people,” says Regier.

Curiosity—the ability to ask good, thought-provoking questions—is also a key part of adaptive communication.

“When leaders do this, they also help staff learn to be critical thinkers when it comes to job performance and problem solving,” Weingart says.

NEXT: Pandemic-driven change

Pandemic-driven change

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 hard, and hard skills are easy.’
Neville Billimoria

A differentiator

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:

  • Do you feel safe enough around me to honestly share how you’re doing and what’s on your mind? If not, what am I doing to make it unsafe?
  • After an interaction with me, do you feel more capable than you did before? If not, what am I doing to cause that?
  • Am I clear about boundaries and expectations without instilling fear or guilt? If not, what am I doing to instill fear of guilt?

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.”

NEXT: Stronger relationships

Stronger relationships

Practicing self-care, taking care of staff, and modeling resilience and balance while driving performance during the pandemic disrupted the standard business model and affected relationships with employees and credit union members.

“The past year of virtual leading in a COVID-19 environment should make clear which leaders ‘got it’ and practiced these principles and which ones lacked the emotional intelligence, self-reflection, and authentic leadership to pivot,” says Billimoria.

Empathy and emotional intelligence, starting at the top of an organization, can result in a cultural shift toward caring and compassion that runs through the entire organization—all the way to shaping responses to or interacting with members in a more sensitive way.

“Soft skills lead to stronger relationships,” says Jeff Rendel, principal of Rising Above Enterprises. “With customers, the result is retention and consistent sales. With vendors, the result is flexibility in pricing, execution, and service.

“With employees,” he continues, “the result is engagement, which leads to innovation, profitability, and lower turnover.”

Credit unions focus on building relationships with people and communities. Those with a strong sense of social mission and core purpose will already have a working relationship with empathy.

“Our members have a number of choices of where they conduct their financial business,” says Colgan. “The ability to communicate effectively and with empathy at a human level with our membership is vital and a real differentiator between our credit union and the financial institution down the road.”

“The greatest leaders are often, in reality, skillful followers,” adds Stankovic. “These individuals can put their own egos aside in active pursuit of the social mission and organizational shared vision. This does not mean relinquishing independence. In fact, it often takes courage and a strong work ethic.

“Once a leader can embrace the notion of servant leadership, give clear and specific recognition to their teams, delegate strategically, listen intently, and build trust, they can inspire.”


This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Credit Union Magazine. Subscribe here.