What are power skills?

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The skills needed to succeed in the workplace are changing, with companies placing greater value on soft skills like communication and leadership. In response, community banks have an opportunity to revisit hiring policies and training programs.

By Roshan McArthur


The use of digital technology and artificial intelligence has changed the workplace dramatically in recent decades, but the pandemic accelerated this shift by forcing remote working and driving online commerce. As a result, the skills needed in all businesses, community banks included, are changing.

According to an analysis by McKinsey Global Institute, the need for manual skills and basic cognitive skills is declining due to increased automation, while the demand for what used to be called “soft skills” is on the rise.

Soft skills are personal attributes, not traditionally taught but often picked up in the workplace, that allow employees to interact well with others, both socially and emotionally. But, according to ICBA’s chief learning and experience officer Lindsay LaNore, there’s really nothing all that “soft” about them. And that’s why professionals in the learning and development space are increasingly referring to them as “power skills.”

Power skills, in essence, are those that can’t be replaced by artificial intelligence. So, employees increasingly will need skills that set them apart from machines but also work well in the digital era and help them adapt to new ways of working.

A compassionate approach

Kirsti Coghlan, director of human resources at $600 million-asset Mauch Chunk Trust Company (MCT) in Jim Thorpe, Pa., learned the value of skills like these during the pandemic. In the past, she says, the community bank’s recruitment strategies typically relied heavily on traditional banking experience, with an emphasis on the candidate’s ability to sell. When COVID hit, that changed radically.

The bank found itself accepting applications from nurses, certified nurse aides and home healthcare aides, all of whom were looking for new career opportunities.

“Healthcare workers have the ability to triage intuitively,” Coghlan says. “They would utilize their caregiver personalities, and that parlayed into behaviors for the customer service experience.”

The caregivers’ ability to empathize with customers turned out to be a boon for MCT, especially when dealing with emotionally difficult issues. “We’ve seen an amazing uptick in fraud,” she adds. “So, the patience a caregiver would have to sit with someone who’s experiencing issues and work through those dynamics, that’s a different personality set, or critical skill set, than you would have in a traditional banker.

“The traditional banker might say, ‘OK, let’s close your checking account down, let’s suspend your debit and credit cards.’ The caregiver is going to say, ‘This must be devastating for you. How can we further support the family?’ Coghlan continues. “Being a community bank, our customers are our neighbors. So, we need to be cognizant of what else we can do to support them, other than the mechanical step A, step B, step C.”

This led to MCT launching new training initiatives. If candidates didn’t come from a traditional banking background, the community bank knew it needed to provide a solid knowledge base for them, while thinking more creatively about its leadership development and career ladder opportunities. As a result, it now provides progressive advancement levels within multiple departments, creating cross-functional opportunities and expanding employees’ knowledge base by tapping into their critical thinking skills.

The ability to think critically and use intuition comes into play when identifying fraud, a skill set Coghlan believes goes beyond the required training on topics like phishing scams, and one that’s essential for future-proofing banks and their customers. That critical skill set, she explains, helps bankers ask questions, “while not being nosy, not being belligerent, not being intrusive, but being savvy enough to think, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not a typical transaction for you, let’s investigate this a little bit further.’”

Coghlan encourages other bank leaders to follow suit by tapping into skill sets from other industries and to reexamine “the preset notion that you have to have preexisting banking experience.”

“You still need the ability to crunch numbers, you still need to have your basic credits and debits, or your accounting basics, but that can be taught,” she says. “With the market the way it is, I would say, broaden this perspective, take off the traditional blinders, and take a look at things that may come as a surprise.”


10 power skills to encourage in your staff

McKinsey Global Institute has identified certain foundational skills that improve workers’ chances of employment and job satisfaction.
They include:

  1. Critical thinking
  2. Communication
  3. Planning
  4. Mental flexibility
  5. Fostering inclusiveness
  6. Inspiring trust
  7. Showing empathy
  8. Self-awareness
  9. Risk-taking
  10. Decisiveness

Training for success

Ensuring that your existing employees develop power skills is key to building teams that are agile and prepared to take on the future, says Lindsay LaNore of ICBA.

“Some folks say it’s part of future-proofing your company,” she says, “but this skill building also strengthens the company culture. A robust learning and development program can be a game-changer for banks, one that is built to include not only technical skills but also power skills can provide that powerful wind to generate growth and further company success.”

ICBA Community Banker University has seen a tremendous increase in the power skills courses used by community bankers in the last year, including Problem Solving: The 5 Steps, Communicating Proactively, Communicating Persuasively, Team Problem Solving and Change Management. Visit ICBA Community Banker University to learn more.


Roshan McArthur is a writer in California.