What makes a great leader?
I’ve been posing that question to credit union CEOs for an article I’m writing for NAFCU’s magazine. Without spilling too many beans, let me share with you some “secrets” I’ve learned about great leadership. I think you’ll see, though, that they really aren’t secrets at all. They’re tried and true ideas that you can apply to your own life and business, whether you work for a small firm, large enterprise or just want to improve yourself.
Don’t stop learning
The leaders I talked to were passionate about continual improvement and education. Leadership isn’t always “natural,” as much as we might like to think it blooms full force without any training or preparation. Leadership is a long process of learning, doing and improving, and then learning some more.
Learning comes in many forms and need not be an advanced degree. It can be attending seminars or earning a professional designation. As you become more senior, it might involve mentoring others, speaking at conferences or contributing articles to a journal.
Continual improvement means asking a lot of questions, not being afraid to admit you’re wrong and making needed changes in yourself and your organization. As one CEO told me, when you learn, you are thinking outside your normal way of seeing things. Be willing to step outside your comfort zone and see things from a new perspective.
Every CEO I interviewed talked about the importance of networking. Of course, this is one of the wonderful aspects of credit unions—it’s such a giving and sharing industry that you really have no excuse not to talk to your peers to get ideas and advice. But networking is not unique to credit unions. I’ve found that same eagerness to share among PR professionals, especially with the Independent Public Relations Alliance that I belong to. I’m amazed at how generous my fellow practitioners are in sharing resources and information. I highly recommend joining the professional organization that represents your industry.
If I could leave you with just one takeaway from my interviews, it would be this: Effective leadership is all about building relationships. Knowledge gets you started, but it is the ability to build relationships that moves you ahead. Every CEO I talked to put people skills at the top of his or her “must-have” list for a leader.
To be sure, it’s a balancing act. In a highly regulated industry like financial services, technical skills and operations experience still matter. That part you have to get right. But leaders don’t necessarily have to possess all that technical expertise themselves. That’s where delegation, trust and team building come in.
The CEOs I spoke to were quick to describe where they want to take their credit union. They had a vision. It seems to me that one of the clearest distinctions between leaders and followers is that leaders know what the future looks like, and they can motivate their teams to get there. It’s that passion and being able to drive your organization towards a goal that makes all the difference.
How could any self-respecting communicator write about leadership without mentioning the importance of communication? Without effective communication, you simply cannot lead. Period.
Managing and Leading Well
And speaking of managing and leading well…I had the privilege earlier this year of being involved in a book project for NAFCU. I’m pleased to say that Managing and Leading Well by Dan Berger and Anthony Demangone is out, and it’s getting rave reviews. To find out more about the book and see Dan and Anthony talk about leadership on the “CU Broadcast,” check out the link here.