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Leading Through Empathy in the Mortgage Industry

Editor's note: This piece originally appeared in the September 2020 print issue of MReport, out now.

Over the course of my 30-year career in the mortgage banking and mortgage insurance industries, I’ve learned many lessons about leadership. One lesson stands above the rest, however: To be a good leader, you really have to care about other people’s success, not just your own.  

That concept was reinforced to me in a recent survey of our employees on how they felt about working for our organization and for the executive team. I read our employees’ confidential responses carefully. What struck me was the emphasis employees put on qualities such as being caring, attentive, and a good listener.  

The idea that you need to be caring to be a good leader wasn’t always widely accepted. Some believed it was a sign of weakness, or a feminine trait. Since then, our ideas about effective leadership have evolved. Today we know caring and appreciation are signs of strength in a leader. Another is “emotional intelligence,” defined by Psychology Today as “the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.”  

I believe women show tremendous strength in many of these “new” traits that we attribute to effective leadersBelow, I get into a few reasons why, as well as what I think makes a good leaderand how to become one.  

 Why Empathy is a Strength 

 When people think of the key qualities that make a great leader, words like decisiveness, self-confidence and integrity usually come to mind. Often missing from this list is what I consider to be one of the most important leadership traits: empathy. And today, with the pandemic impacting the way we all do business, I believe empathy in a leader is more critical than ever.  

 There are plenty of studies to back this up. report by global consulting firm Korn Ferry, "The Power of EI," highlights empathy as an emotional-intelligence competence that makes leaders more effective. The research reveals a positive link between empathy and a company’s performance, team climate and employee retention. 

 As we all know, empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. An empathetic leader listens thoroughly to others and is caring. But having empathy is not a sign of weakness. You can still be direct, confident and strong while showing others empathy 

 In fact, empathy as a key leadership trait is emphasized repeatedly in an unexpected placethe U.S. military.  It’s one of the first things listed in the U.S. Army manual on Leadership Development under the section on character: “Army leaders show empathy when they genuinely relate to another person’s situation, motives, or feelings,” the manual states. “Empathy does not mean sympathy for another, but a realization that leads to a deeper understanding. Empathy allows the leader to anticipate what others are experiencing and feeling and gives insight into how decisions or actions affect them.” 

Today, there is even empathy training in the workplace. According to a Wall Street Journal article published a few years ago, 20 percent of employers offered empathy training as part of their management development initiatives,which was up substantially from 10 years earlier. Today even more companies are offering empathy training, including LinkedIn, Tesla Motors, and Cisco Systems 

There is also evidence that empathy in the workplace can boost the bottom line. In its 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Study, BusinessSolver found that 76 percent of employees believe that empathy drives greater productivity.   

But perhaps most importantly, when managers and the leadership team have empathy for employees and truly listen to their concerns or their ideas without judgement, it bolsters the confidence of team members and encourages them to actually put in more effort to do a good job. Empathy also encourages innovation. When leaders show employees they care and that their ideas are valued, employees are more likely to come up with creative and forward-thinking ideas for the company.   

An Aptitude for Consensus Leadership 

Another leadership concept I strongly believe in is consensus leadership. Consensus leadership is when team members work as a group to develop an answer or solution, then everyone agrees to support whatever decision is made in the best interests of the department or company. It involves hearing input from each member of the team, thoughtfully considering their contribution, and then making a genuine effort to address concerns that may be brought up.  

But it’s important that leaders have the skillset to guide team meetings and make sure that everyone is heard. Martin Luther King, Jr., captured this concept perfectly when he said, "A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus."  

Consensus is an aspect of my role that I don’t take lightly. I love that I get to work with all of the departments at my company. It gives me a chance to work with a wide variety of people in different areas. Each person brings a different perspective to the table and I value each one. I also really like taking all of those views into account and then working to help find clarity in where we’re heading and what the next steps are to accomplish our goals. 

But if after discussing an issue and hearing everyone’s input, a consensus is not reachedthe ultimate decision is mine and the team accepts thisLeaders often get a lot of information thrown at them, and they need to be able to parse through it all and then act decisively. That’s important, and I would advise all women leaders to make it clear that they can and will make the definitive decisions.  

Along with empathy, I believe women executives have a natural aptitude for working with teams and using consensus leadership to make decisions. Research bears this out. Another Korn Ferry study, “What Makes Women CEOs Different?” found women CEOs were more likely to engage the power of teams. Women CEOs in the study were more likely to leverage others to achieve desired results and also scored significantly higher than the benchmark group on humility—that is, showing a consistent lack of self-promotion, an expressed appreciation for others, and a tendency to share the credit 

While women may have an advantage when it comes to empathy and consensus leadership, there are some who may struggle to truly take charge and not let negative feedback get in the way of making decisions. Unfortunately, everyone has moments of self-doubt. It’s important to remember that all leaders—male and female—have had to work really hard at developing attributes or skillthey don’t have. Work at it. Find trusted advisors. Take courses if you need to. I find that most women leaders don’t want to do a job if they can’t do it well. But rather than turning down a leadership opportunity, I would advise them to learn the necessary skills, put away self-doubt and just go for it. 

Taking Steps Toward Leadership  

There is no blueprint to becoming an effective leader, but I have learned what works. Below are a few steps women (or men for that matter) should take towards reaching their goals of being managers or executives.  

Listen carefully. Along with empathylistening is something women do very well. Make sure you’re listening closely to those in your department, on your team and in the entire organization. By doing so, you are better able to pinpoint where problems existwhich is the first step to solving them. Listening is also the key to developing effective working relationships among employees and between management and staff.  

Be prepared. I’m a big believer in preparation and I think it has made all the difference in my success. A person who is prepared stands out in meetings and people pay attention that person. Rather than simply showing up to meetings, take the time to think about what will be discussed, strategize and plan in advance. Go ahead and write that document or put that presentation together. By doing so, you can set the pace and come across as a leader.  

Develop Trust. Work to establish trust with your team, your organization and your customers. When people trust you, you automatically have more credibility. According to Stephen M.R. Covey, author of the bestselling book The Speed of Trust, trust impacts two measurable outcomes: speed and cost. When trust goes down—on a team, in a company or with a customer—speed decreases with it. Everything takes longer and costs increase. On the flip side, when trust goes up, speed goes up with it and costs come down. Everything happens faster and everything costs less because trust has been established.  

Take control and make things happen. Most people who are not already leaders tend to hang back and wait for others to tell them what to do. Get out of that mindset. Instead, think about ways that you can move your company forward. Then take the initiative to develop a plan and make it happen.  

Cultivate trusted advisors and mentorsEvery leader needs assistance from time to time. By developing a strong network of advisor or mentors, you have people to turn to when you need help thinking things through, getting feedback on a strategy or plan, or simply a response to, “Am I heading in the right direction?”  

Be authentic. In other words, be yourself. Don’t try to mold yourself into someone else’s vision of a leaderBy simply being yourself, your co-workers and customers get to know the real you. Being authentic makes others feel more at ease. Most people prefer to do business with people they like and are comfortable with. I’ve long been an admirer of Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook, who put it this way: True leadership stems from individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed . . . leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection. 

 The days of leaders ruling with iron fists are gone—and thank goodness. Today, becoming a great leader and an impactful influencer is about all of the things I’ve discussedlistening to people, showing you truly care about their ideas, providing encouragement, using team work to reach a consensus, being decisive and clear, and finally, just being yourself.  

Women certainly don’t have a monopoly on these traits. But we do have them, and the opportunities for women to lead are greater than ever. If you feel that’s your calling, there’s no better time to heed that call.   

About Author: Claudia Merkle

The CEO of National MI, a private mortgage insurer based in Emeryville, California, Claudia has more than 30 years’ experience in the mortgage and private mortgage insurance industries. She joined National MI in May 2012 as SVP of underwriting fulfillment and risk operations, was promoted to EVP of insurance operations in 2013, appointed COO in 2016, was promoted to President in 2018 and promoted to CEO in January 2019. She has held previous executive leadership positions within the mortgage banking and mortgage insurance industries and has been recognized with several industry awards for leadership

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