History is full of examples of leaders in business, science, and other fields who, through their ability to inspire and guide people, have made the world a better place. We celebrate our nation’s highest elected office on Presidents’ Day, this year on February 15. With this upcoming celebration, especially in the midst of a challenging environment, we thought it a good opportunity to ask Tompkins VIST Bank President and CEO Scott Gruber for his thoughts on the subject.
- What kind of a leader do you aspire to be?
To be the head of an organization like Tompkins VIST Bank – which is both a challenge and an honor– I try to be the kind of leader I’ve always admired. That is a person who has vision, is compassionate and inclusive, and inspires people to achieve goals. I think that if you live these qualities, they spread throughout an organization. For example, as a community bank, we’re known for our compassion, communication and collaboration in serving customers. Despite our staff’s own anxiety about the many unknowns of the pandemic, they put customers first, working to connect with them using virtual platforms and collaborating to set up stimulus programs so that businesses could retain jobs.
- Where do you look for inspiration (it can be a person, place, thing)?
People have had the most significant impact on my life. My earliest mentor was my late father, William, who I admired for his strength, work ethic and common-sense approach to life. I also had the privilege of working with several chief executives who taught me how to lead through difficult times. They were level-headed and clear about their expectations but also showed humanity. In terms of American presidents who inspired me, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying Abraham Lincoln was at the top of my list. He was a powerful leader who displayed fortitude during one of the most challenging times in our history. We can all learn from his example.
- What books and publications are a source of leadership ideas for you?
I’ve benefitted from a number of leadership resources over the years, but the most relevant to today’s environment is the concept Emotional Intelligence. It’s basically trying to understanding others’ needs to achieve mutually beneficial results. Our bank’s Senior Leadership Team and I have studied Emotional Intelligence and conveyed its principles inside the company. If you put yourself in your customers’ shoes, you’ll try to be as responsive and communicative as possible. This approach has strengthened our relationships.
- Where do the great ideas come from at VIST?
Being a leader can create an echo chamber phenomenon where people tell you what they think you want to hear, so you have to really work for input and new ideas. I have an open-door policy where I encourage staff to share thoughts regardless of their role in the company. Everyone matters. We also communicate frequently with team members. One example is our quarterly employee calls where we discuss important issues and share success stories. And I connect individually with employees to ask them how they’re doing and let them know how much they’re valued. Before COVID I would visit all of our locations and talk to people, which I really enjoyed. Since last March I’ve been reaching out to by phone to solicit ideas and express appreciation.
- It has been said that good leaders listen to those they lead. What kinds of things do you ask the people you lead so that you can become more effective?
My three constant questions are “What can I do to support you?”, “What do you need to be successful?” and “What can we do to make you feel valued?” I’ve received some valuable responses, including one when I first joined the company as president in 2013. It was a request for me to be visible and have open communications. That was behind my commitment to host informal get togethers with employees, visit branches and departments and accompany staff on visits with customers. I believe this has benefited everyone, including myself.