The Palette of Leadership

By Evan Sparks

Are you red, yellow, green or blue?

Talk to students at the ABA Stonier Graduate School of Banking for long enough and you’ll hear phrases like “I am yellow,” “we’re all red,” or—my favorite—“my CEO is very green in a good way.”

It’s not that the CEO is new in the job; she’s just being categorized according to the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument. It’s less intimidating than it sounds—it’s a test of cognitive style, similar to Myers-Briggs, that categorizes people in four quadrants: blue (analytical), green (practical), red (relational) and yellow (experimental).
Taught by Wharton executive education faculty member Mario Moussa as part of the Stonier core curriculum, the HBDI helps bank leaders understand themselves and how they relate to colleagues and senior leaders—and gives them a sense of how to plot their own career paths and guide others.

Big conversations

“It changes your communication with that other person when you understand what their color is,” says Natalie Parker (a mix of yellow and red, for the record). “You might approach a difficult conversation differently.” Parker is CFO at Citizens Bank of Edmond in Edmond, Okla.

Over the course of an ascending banking career, executives will have many occasions for these tricky conversations. “When I worked in the branches and I was a head teller, my managing style was making sure that everyone’s on schedule [and]they know what they’re doing,” reflects Mayra Rinaldi, SVP for corporate governance at Columbia Bank in Fair Lawn, N.J. “As I’ve evolved and moved up into higher roles, I’m trying to coach people and learning to have those difficult conversations on how they can improve.” Understanding differences—and being able to articulate them in straightforward ways—contributes to that.

Understanding an HBDI color provides some empathy, which Joselyn Baldner says she used to coach a new employee at Central Bank in Springfield, Mo., where Baldner is EVP and chief retail officer. “She sought me out and asked if I would help her, and so we started by just talking through situations,” she says. “One of the major themes that came out of that was when you are leading, you have to have a heart for people.”

It turned out that cultivating empathy was the missing ingredient for this employee, “so we worked on adjusting her communication and thought process . . . to how you’d frame your communications specifically to get you the results that you need for your team as a whole.” Understanding and appreciating difference drove change. “If you’re looking to bring people on board with your ideas, you need to be more collaborative,” adds Baldner.

Developing a team dynamic

For Carly Leonards—chief banking officer at JD Bank in Lake Charles, La.—the HDBI color exercise helped her see how to take the emotion out of leadership discussions and decisions. “I thought about my bank’s executive management team and what our potential colors are and how helpful it would be to share that with one another, so if we’re all blue and there’s one yellow or two yellows and those groups always seem to be in disagreement, we can recognize it for the science of it and not necessarily be emotional about it,” she says. Each group has a strength the other does not; all are valuable.

Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses helps bankers know “who else do I need to bring to the table to help me if I’m doing a project and I’m a yellow,” says Baldner. This applies inside and outside of the bank; Baldner has found the exercise useful in fostering productive team dynamics in her work with the Missouri Bankers Association and other civic groups.

“As a leader, you’re accomplishing things through your team and you can’t do that by taking it all on yourself and thinking you’re the best at everything, because you’re not,” Parker adds.

For leaders who are developing into that role, however, deploying a true team dynamic can be a difficult shift. “New managers or new leaders can be very good at driving results internally and protecting their team,” explains Grant Bridgewater, senior director for IT infrastructure and operations at Tulsa, Okla.-based BOK Financial. “Leaders must adopt a broader perspective which often requires them to be collaborative and support other leaders in achieving goals that benefit the whole organization.”

Breaking barriers through communication

Since each team functions differently due to the personalities and cognitive styles of the people on it, leadership means tailoring communication to those people and their colors. “Your communication methods have to change in some way in order to effectively get your intended message to everybody,” explains Chris Cattie, EVP and chief IT officer at QNB Bank in Quakertown, Pa.

That can be tricky, especially in organizations spread out over lots of territory. “Communicating across large organizations requires that leaders are mindful of their entire audience,” says Bridgewater, who works for a $32 billion institution that spans several states. “When we communicate about exciting changes occurring in one location, it is very important that employees at the other locations understand how these events either impact them or benefit the company overall.”

Transparent communication “conveys value,” adds Wes Sutherland, CFO at Live Oak Bank in Wilmington, N.C. Unlike BOK, with its multistate retail presence, Live Oak is a specialized business bank that lends nationwide but has “everybody essentially in the same location,” Sutherland explains—but “we still have to be purposeful and intentional.”

Genuine relationships

Knowing yourself and knowing your colleagues is what lays a foundation for honest communication, and thus for genuine relationships, Sutherland adds. “With an underlying relationship of trust, I can be honest with you and say, ‘This is something you really need to work on or this is something you are great at,’ letting each know what super power they bring to the team,” he says.

“You have to care about them, but you also have to push them at the same time,” adds Parker. The genuineness allows relationships to grow; the prodding that a solid relationship permits allows the business enterprise to bloom.

“I think at the end of the day if that communication is done the way it should be, they know—even when you’re sitting down and coaching or counseling them—that you are just as vested in their success as you want them to be in their success,” adds Rinaldi. “That’s what creates that mutual relationship.”


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