A few years back, when the training group Tom Walch was participating in was tasked with answering a series of highly technical utility questions, he figured his contributions would be minimal.

“I was surrounded by engineers, IT people, accountants, operations managers,” says Walch, now CEO of Grand Valley Power in Colorado and a lawyer by training. “They knew the nuts and bolts.”

But as the team wrestled with the questions, something unexpected happened.

“I was taking on the role of the leader.”

Amid its deliberations, the group recognized that Walch’s skill for listening and blending multiple ideas allowed the rest of the team to think more freely and more creatively.

It was Walch’s first real experience with the power of soft skills and one that he has actively expanded on at Grand Valley Power.

“We live and work in an industry that is hard-skills-centric,” he says. “You need those for setting poles, ratemaking, operations. But to take it to the next level, the organization needs to develop soft skills to drive excellence in service.”

The world got a similar lesson this past year as people and businesses adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts found the companies that fared best were those whose leaders showed care and concern for stressed employees, quickly adapted to online work, provided flexibility for staff and invited new ideas and creativity.

“It was dialing up those so-called ‘soft skills’ that really made the difference,” says Tracey Steiner, NRECA’s senior vice president for education and training.

At a January virtual event with co-op CEOs, Steiner says that message came through loud and clear.

“The pandemic has jolted the ‘way we’ve always done it’ mindset of their staff and boards,” she recalls. “When the pandemic forced us all to rethink how we work, what I heard from CEOs—though they didn’t always use these exact terms—was that their empathy, communication and relationship-building skills had to kick into overdrive.”

Now, Steiner says, co-op leaders are keen to build on the ingenuity and adaptability that emerged in response to the pandemic.

“We’ve seen increased interest in training and resources for leaders and their teams, particularly around improving communication skills, accountability and emotional intelligence,” she says. “Co-op leaders see this as an opportunity to develop future leaders and their co-op culture too.”

Emotional intelligence

Experts say soft skills arise from so-called “emotional intelligence,” which a 2019 Harvard Business School article breaks into four core competencies:

  • Self-awareness.
  • Self-management.
  • Social awareness.
  • Relationship management.

The concept first gained broad notice in management circles in 1995 with the publication of Daniel Goleman’s bestseller, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.”

Goleman wrote that organizations with emotionally intelligent leadership are frequently better at building workforces and cultures that are more creative, innovative, empathetic and adaptable.

While some leaders have natural soft skills, the good news is, such competencies can be taught, as long as the student wants to learn, says Cyndi Wentland, CEO of Intentional Leaders, a Madison, Wisconsin-based learning and development consultancy.

“I have seen people transformed when they want to change, who lean into reducing the gap in their emotional intelligence,” says Wentland, who has taught soft skills development in NRECA’s Management Internship Program for the last six years.

‘A work in progress’

Josh Winslow’s pursuit of soft skills began in earnest several years ago when a human resources manager handed him the book “Emotional Intelligence 2.0.”

“It can be developed with training,” says Winslow, the CEO at Brunswick EMC in Supply, North Carolina. “Between a leader simply understanding the concept and achieving the desired outcomes in the organization, there exists a lot of stuff—grit, work, effort, communication.”

His approach involves empowering employees, explaining how each effort and interaction is meaningful to the mission of the cooperative and fostering sensitivity to members.

“Out of 200 employees, this will involve 200 different approaches,” he says. “That takes emotional intelligence.”

Jennifer Meason, CEO at Cotton Electric in Walters, Oklahoma, knows that the quality of communication with and among her staff are what determine whether high-level decisions work, so she constantly evaluates her own interactions.

“When the meeting or encounter was ended, and if I would be left with a feeling that it did not go well, I would question my own approach, ask how it could have gone better, consider whether I had listened to what was being said,” she says. “I know that I have to be flexible in how I communicate and how I take feedback—even criticism.

“I’m like everyone else, a work in progress. I try to see others in that same light, and I don’t quit trying.”

Younger employees and members

As more younger adults move to rural areas, the need to emphasize soft skills will increase.

Data compiled for NRECA’s Young Adult Member Engagement initiative shows more than half of new hires at co-ops are under age 45. Studies show this group, mostly Millennials and younger Gen Xers, come from backgrounds where they were taught to be more collaborative, to place greater emphasis on teamwork and to question authority.

“Emotional intelligence and empathy are two of the most important factors to look for in new employees and to further develop in existing employees,” says Charlie Dunn, CEO of Farmers Rural Electric Cooperative in Greenfield, Iowa. “Employees that understand how their behaviors and actions impact others, and then use this awareness to manage their relationships with others, is crucial for a positive work environment and healthy culture.”

Dunn says he sends employees to various trainings every year to improve their soft skills, among other facets.

Ultimately, he says, developing teams with strong emotional intelligence will be a critical factor in how co-ops confront the broad changes and unprecedented challenges in store for the electric industry.

“We want future leaders that will lead with humility, empathy and courage.”