Inside the new style of leadership

Successful community bank leaders inspire from the top while putting the team first. Here’s how.

By Beth Mattson-Teig

Being an effective leader in today’s business world requires more than simply holding that title of president or CEO and being the “boss” people have to follow. A new generation of leaders is bringing a new perspective and changing the status quo for traditional practices.

Christopher Palmer is still relatively new to his latest leadership role. He was named as the new president and chief operating officer at the $800 million-asset Pioneer Bank in Roswell, N.M., one year ago (and was named ICBA’s Community Banker of the Year, West, for 2017). One of Palmer’s objectives is to introduce collaborative leadership into what had been more of a “command and control” environment.

“I do think leadership has changed, and it is incumbent upon the leader to create leaders beneath him, not just for people to bide their time and rise through the ranks just [because] they have served their time,” Palmer says.

Leadership is shifting toward practices that inspire, motivate and support everyone within an organization. Likewise, there is a bigger divergence between management and leadership. Most people prefer to work in a leadership organization as opposed to a management organization.

“Today’s worker is not motivated by heavy-handed edicts,” says Sean Kouplen, chairman and CEO of Regent Bank, a $450 million-asset community bank in Tulsa, Okla. “They require input, buy-in and [an] understanding [of] where the organization is headed and how they fit in.”

Certainly, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for successful leadership. Different leadership styles work better in different environments, and some individuals are not always a good fit for every situation. Views of effective leadership styles and skills—along with the character traits that support strong leadership—are evolving.

“I believe there are two sides to an effective leader: the visionary and the captain,” Kouplen says. The visionary must see the future, communicate well, and inspire and motivate the team to greater heights, he says. The captain must be fair, honest, approachable, trustworthy and a great listener. “I don’t believe the leader should be mysterious or unapproachable at all, but rather a trusted friend who always has your back,” he adds. 

One of the drivers behind that leadership evolution is a workforce that is younger and more multicultural, notes Teri Williams, president and chief operating officer at OneUnited Bank, a community financial institution with $660 million in assets and locations in Los Angeles, Miami and Boston.

“Today, I believe effective leadership includes taking a more collaborative, less hierarchical management style that welcomes and respects the views of millennials,” she says.

Nowadays, there is less trust of leadership that is based solely on seniority. “There is a greater recognition—given the technology revolution—that the younger generation has more to contribute than a traditional hierarchical organization may allow, which has resulted in a need for more collaborative leadership,” Williams says. For example, she meets weekly with a group of interns to discuss social media strategy and to get insight from that younger generation of social media users. She also meets with all employees a few times a year and encourages suggestions from everyone. “The message is that everyone is important,” she says.

What makes an effective leader?
Certainly, there are people who seem to be “natural” leaders. However, most leaders recognize that leadership is a work in progress. “The best leaders are self-aware,” says Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, a speaker on introverts, leadership and women, and author of The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength. “They are constantly taking a look at themselves to say, ‘What worked and what didn’t? What can I do better? What’s my personality? How do I stay true to myself but also learn and flex so that I have a whole repertoire of strengths that I can pull from to be effective?’”

A common misperception about leaders is that they have to be extroverts. “You don’t have to be a loud, type-A personality to be a leader,” Kahnweiler says. Between 40 and 60 percent of senior leaders fall into the introvert category, she notes. “They lead with a quiet presence rather than an ‘in-your-face’ personality.”

The charisma looks different for those introverted leaders. In his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ, author Daniel Goleman highlights the importance of listening and being present as key leadership qualities. It is important for leaders to be good listeners and to not always be the ones providing all of the answers, Kahnweiler adds.

“Another skill that is really important for leaders today is being able to coach,” she says. “To do that, they need to be able to delegate.” Delegating gives leaders more time to invest in leadership activities that are going to make the most difference. It also helps to develop leadership skills in others within an organization.

“One of the big changes over the last 20 years is that it used to be that, if you had the position, people would line up and simply do things because ‘the boss said so,’” says Kit Welchlin, speaker, author and president of Welchlin Communication Strategies. Good leadership is now more about employee engagement, employee empowerment and creating a good workplace experience, he adds.

Improving leadership skills is an ongoing pursuit
It is important for leaders to avoid getting too comfortable or complacent in a leadership position, especially in today’s rapidly changing business environment. Leaders need to periodically reassess their own leadership abilities, including both strengths and areas for improvement. “A key for yourself, and to bring your bank forward, is to continue to learn and remain relevant,” Kahnweiler says.

There are plenty of educational resources available in terms of classes, books and seminars, as well as networking, mentoring and coaches. Pioneer Bank’s Palmer has focused on improving his leadership skills throughout his career. His office is filled with leadership books and articles from the likes of management consultant Peter Drucker and Steven Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

One of the lessons that Palmer took home from attending a leadership class at the Graduate School of Banking in Madison, Wis., was an example of a leader who met with employees once a week. “It was more than a staff meeting,” Palmer says. “It was creating leaders beneath him and giving people opportunities to take charge and work through different things.”

So, when Palmer joined Pioneer Bank as senior vice president and chief financial officer in 2004, one of the first things he did was start his own weekly staff meeting that included all of his direct reports. Part of the meeting is dedicated to typical bank business, while another component is engaging in a broader discussion about leadership. Over the past 13 years, the group has also read and discussed more than 30 different business books, such as How to Win Friends & Influence People, The Happiness Project and a book about former Boeing and Ford CEO Alan Mulally.

Emerging leaders can gain experience by being involved on committees and boards of community, civic and industry organizations. “Experience is certainly the best teacher, but I believe it’s important to invest in leadership training for young bankers,” Kouplen says. Regent Bank supports emerging leaders within its organization with classes, speakers, book discussions and open-door access to its executive team. 

It’s also important to give younger bankers exposure to upper-level managers, adds Kouplen. Regent Bank hosts a monthly Young Guns Luncheon for several of its younger bankers that includes an educational component on different topics. The bank also plans to roll out a mentor program this year, where younger bankers can pair up with executives to learn more about their career paths and experience.

Networking is another underused resource, Kahnweiler notes. There are different ways to make and strengthen connections, both in person and online. Many people are using social media more thoughtfully in terms of leveraging networks to learn best practices. “There is so much to be learned online,” she says. “It’s just [about] focusing and connecting with people who have like-minded interests and who we can learn from.”

How to lead millennials

Leaders work to bridge the age gap.

Bank leaders are adapting their skills to meet the demands of a diverse workforce that comprises baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials, as well as the leading edge of Generation Z that has just turned 22.

Leaders do have to fine-tune some of their leadership to the “three Gs”: gender, generational and global (or cultural) differences, says Kit Welchlin of Welchlin Communication Strategies. Specific to age differences, there are some expectations or assumptions that those generations have about the workplace. Being aware of those differences helps leaders make minor adjustments to be more effective for individual employees, he says.

The millennial generation has been a key focus for good reason. By 2020, millennials will represent half of the global workforce. “The biggest challenge with that is that people stereotype,” says speaker and author Jennifer B. Kahnweiler. “So, the first thing you have to do is check yourself for biases.”

“As a leader, it is important to instill mutual respect for the range of voices in the workforce. Our customers and the communities we serve also include a range of generations … so it helps to have different perspectives internally.”
—Teri Williams,
oneunited bank

That being said, there are behavior traits and values that are common among different generations. Millennials and Generation Z have grown up with technology, smartphones and social media, so they do communicate differently. The younger generations are highly educated, but they have been educated differently than their older peers on everything from the “new math” to more emphasis on collaboration and group projects.

Often, millennial employees have different career expectations. Research has shown that more than 70 percent already worry about work-life balance. They are more comfortable moving from job to job for both professional and personal reasons. Millennials want to feel valued and appreciated. So, it is important from day one that leaders let them know they are welcomed and valued, notes Welchlin.

Banks can benefit from combining the wisdom and work experience of an older workforce with the technology and social media experience of a younger workforce. “As a leader, it is important to instill mutual respect for the range of voices in the workforce,” says Teri Williams of OneUnited Bank. “Our customers and the communities we serve also include a range of generations, which we also need to connect with and serve, so it helps to have different perspectives internally.”

One mistake is going overboard in making adjustments to accommodate different generations. At the end of the day, people across generations generally want the same thing, says Welchlin. They want to work with a leader they can be proud of and where there is mutual respect, and to have support and autonomy to meet their own career goals. — Beth Mattson-Teig

Unexpectedly effective leaders

Move over, type As. Strong leaders aren’t always the ones who shout the loudest.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook
It might just take an introvert to know the best way to improve communication. Zuckerberg took Facebook from a college directory to the world’s most powerful social media platform, with 2 billion active monthly users. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, told The New York Times that “[Zuckerberg] is shy and introverted, and he often does not seem very warm to people who don’t know him, but he is warm.”


Rosa Parks, civil rights activist
Rosa Parks’ actions spoke louder than her words. Most famous for refusing to give up her bus seat for a white man, Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycotts during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Susan Cain wrote in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking: “I had always imagined Rosa Parks as a stately woman with a bold temperament, someone who could easily stand up to a busload of glowering passengers. But when she died in 2005 at the age of 92, the flood of obituaries … said she was ‘timid and shy’ but had ‘the courage of a lion.’ They were full of phrases like ‘radical humility’ and ‘quiet fortitude.’”


Warren Buffett, investor
Warren Buffett’s entrepreneurial skills flourished at a young age, but he recognized quickly that he lacked people skills and attended seminars to help improve them. He believes his introvert qualities have aided his investing career, permitting his abstract thinking to make the intangibles tangible, focusing on the long term by partaking in value investing, and creating a decentralized company where executives can make big decisions. —Sage Larson


Six leadership traits to aspire to

According to Kit Welchlin of Welchlin Communication Strategies, there are six “criteria of personal credibility” that help to create a leader that people choose to follow rather than have to follow.

  1. They appear warm and friendly
  2. They
    demonstrate trustworthiness
  3. They are an information source
  4. They develop relevant expertise
  5. They clearly express intentions and motives
  6. They project dynamism

Beth Mattson-Teig is a business writer in Minnesota.

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