Courageous Leadership Requires Courageous Coaching

By Dorothy Savarese

There are must-read stories in this issue of the ABA Banking Journal that speak of courageous and selfless leadership. Each illustrates its point with true stories—because sometimes nothing teaches better than a real-life example.

In my life and career, I’ve learned leadership first hand from others who have exemplified it. One in particular—Bruce Hammatt—not only demonstrated leadership, he nurtured it in me and helped me see the importance of paying it forward.

Bruce was more than a role model and more than a mentor. He actively promoted me—to others but also to myself, encouraging me to seek out new opportunities and encouraging those with the opportunities to take a chance on me.

Using today’s business vernacular, Bruce was a sponsor, a leadership responsibility that I believe ranks up there with motivating employees and setting ambitious goals.

The difference between a mentor and a sponsor is the difference between coaching a job candidate before a big interview and advocating for that person to be hired. It’s proactive involvement in advancing someone else’s career. And it’s a huge difference-maker.

Prior to moving to Cape Cod, I worked at a regional bank in northern Kentucky and before that as an economic development consultant. I was looking for ways to leverage that experience after moving to the Cape, ideally on a part-time basis since I was a new mom. That’s when I first turned to Bruce to explore local job opportunities.

From the beginning, he empowered me with information about the job market on the Cape—and even more important, he taught me a community bank’s perspective to lending. That involved “unlearning” some things from a previous life teaching credit at a national level. For example, I discovered there really was something to assessing a borrower’s credit risk based on the neatness of his or her wood pile!

He taught me by doing and guiding, on matters of both substance and style. He sensed, for instance, that I was frustrated by gender bias that was apparent some 25 years ago, when few women occupied a commercial lending role. He didn’t want my anger to get in my way, so he helped me channel the energy behind it productively, as I worked to become a top performer.

Like other sponsors, Bruce also helped me find opportunities to grow and expand my skills, from working on the roll-out of our internet bank while still in commercial lending, to crafting a new job focused on product design and strategic planning.

There is no doubt in my mind that I would not be where I am today if it were not for Bruce’s early attention to and intervention in my career. I imagine most of you reading this column can similarly identify someone who has shaped the trajectory of your professional life.

What I am especially grateful for is the fact that my sponsor did not choose me—or overlook me—based on whether I looked the part. He instead looked for potential and dedication and invested in it. And in doing so, he taught me how to be an effective sponsor for others.

Now I know that you aren’t doing anyone any favors if you simply say, “you’re doing a great job.” It’s important to tell others how much potential we think they have and are capable of and give them opportunities to grow. But we also need to be honest and candid when there are things they can improve upon to be even more effective.

That’s courageous coaching, and I don’t think we can be courageous or selfless leaders without it.

ABA chairman DOROTHY SAVARESE is chairman, president and CEO of Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank, Orleans, Mass.