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Herb White Of Sharonview Federal Credit Union: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Leading with empathy boosts my own morale and my team’s morale. Leaders need to spend time walking around the office or getting out to meet people in other regions and divisions. When senior leaders are visible to the workforce, it makes for a much happier workplace. Plus, being involved at a grassroots level helps me make better decisions for the company.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Herb White.

Herb White, president and CEO of Sharonview Federal Credit Union — which serves members throughout North and South Carolina — believes empathy and leadership go hand in hand. He grew up witnessing how his father employed both traits as a small business owner. His father’s employees wanted to work hard for him because he brought out the best in them. Herb often says he leads with his head and his heart, and he believes effective leaders have to.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

It’s been a quite a journey to get to where I am now. I’ve dedicated myself — ever since my first job right of college — to the financial services industry and to helping people realize their goals and dreams.

What really drove me to be able to sit in this seat today was that I’ve always been curious about all aspects of an organization. And when I say “curious,” I mean I wanted to learn how other divisions worked, how each contributed to the whole and to the bottom line.

I’ve held a lot of positions in the finance world. I’ve worked for both big banks and credit unions. I have seen it all. I have been a part of mergers and acquisitions and have worked the teller line. I’ve managed branches and been a regional branch leader. I’ve done lending — consumer, mortgage and business. All because my curiosity led me to try everything. I always wanted a wide scope.

When I got to Sharonview, I was always open with our previous CEO, and I told him I was interested in learning more about other divisions — and he allowed me to. When I interviewed for the CEO job, I was told that my diversity of experience would be extremely useful in the role.

So, what really brought me here was curiosity and an eagerness to learn.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

When I was younger and working at a big bank, I was once on an elevator — alone — with the CEO. For the minute and a half we were together, we chatted. I had no idea who he was. When the elevator stopped, we both got out on the same floor. My teammates were all right there in the lobby, and they all had funny looks on their faces when they saw us exiting together and amiably chatting.

My boss said, “You know that’s our CEO, right?” The look on my face told him I did not. I immediately began replaying the conversation as I worried I’d said something I shouldn’t have. I didn’t; we had a very pleasant conversation. I appreciated how interested he was in what I was working on.

I still remember that CEO from many years ago and the interest he took in me. Today, when I see my teammates at work — in the hallways, in the break room — I always make it a point to ask how they’re doing.

Good leaders don’t isolate themselves. They don’t limit their interactions to just their own direct reports. If you’re a leader, you should know firsthand how your employees are faring, what morale is like, what improvements could be made. The only way to do that is to interact and have sincere conversations with them every chance you get.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our commitment to our communities.

When I became CEO, I said: We’re going to elevate our member engagement and community engagement functions. Our mission is to take care of our members and the communities we serve. We truly believe that the work we do in our communities strengthens them.

That leads to a beautiful, growing snowball effect that improves our communities and the lives of people who live there.

One story that really humbled me involves our team going to talk to middle schoolers about financial literacy — because the basics of banking aren’t taught in schools anymore — and using gamification to make the lesson fun and memorable. Everyone had a great time. The students and teachers enjoyed it so much that they invited our team back. As they walked in, the kids started chanting, “Yay! Sharonview’s back!”

Everyone should be so excited to learn about budgeting, savings, vehicle financing, credit scores and the like.

If we can start at the school level and teach those kids how to save from a young age, they’ll be better off — and society will be better off.

Through our community engagement efforts, we were also able to donate to one of our local school’s campaigns to expand their playground. The entire class made handwritten thank you cards for our team. It is humbling to think about the potential impact we’re having on people’s futures.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

First, you’ve got to show your team you believe in them. I’ve had a lot of bosses over the years, those that I remember fondly and those that I don’t. I’m not fond of those bosses who intentionally made their teams nervous, just to flex their muscles. I recall the bosses who barked vague orders and expected people to just figure out what they wanted.

And I remember — fondly — the bosses who made it clear they had my back. They demonstrated, through their actions, that they cared about me and my career. They believed in me. They unknowingly showed me the kind of leader I wanted to be.

Years ago, I spent time with a direct report whose performance was struggling a little bit. I went on sales calls with her and tried to help her improve. Within about three months of my telling her I wanted to help, she went from being in the bottom quarter of producers to being the number two producer.

She sent an email telling me she could tell that I believed in her when she didn’t even believe in herself. She wrote, “You made me want to be better.” I saved that email, and I’ll sometimes read it when I’m having a bad day. Those old stories re-energize me.

Second, you must show up for and care about your team. When you do that, they’ll perform at their best. But you have to convey in actions and words that you’re invested in their success, that they’re not just a number.

My team knows I don’t care only about their work performance. I care about them as individuals. I want to know about their families and their lives outside work.

Demonstrating that you care helps you build trust, which I think is the third trait essential for success. To build trust, you have to have open and honest communication. But honesty doesn’t mean hammering someone about all the things they’re doing wrong.

Honesty must be accompanied by positive intent on the leader’s part to show and encourage someone. It’s those positive moments that get people through their challenging ones.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

Well, this wasn’t a decision between two good paths, but it’s a difficult decision that’s still on my mind.

Not long ago, we had to downsize one of our divisions. When you lead with your heart, as I do, it can be a very tough thing. I don’t mean to imply it’s tougher on the leader than the person or people being impacted by the layoff. But it’s never an easy decision. It weighs on you. These are people’s lives and livelihoods.

And it’s not just impacting the employee; it’s impacting their whole family. Sharonview may have 295 employees, but what happens at our company impacts many more people than that once you factor in employees’ families. A good leader is thinking about them, too, when making this kind of decision.

Some of the feedback I got after that decision was that people understood I hadn’t made the decision lightly. I’m not a robot. I’ll show my emotions at work. People said they were confident I made the right decision because they knew it wasn’t arbitrary or callous and that it was handled with compassion.

But the struggle between the heavy head and heavy heart is real. The head has to make those tough financial decisions. But the heart means you do it with compassion.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?

I’ll start by sharing a quote you hear often in leadership circles: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Empathy is more important in leadership, in other words, than anything you could learn in business school.

We’ve been on a journey here at Sharonview to really boost our transparency internally.

If the leadership team and I alter the strategic initiatives of our organization, we better make sure we tell everyone why. You don’t just issue a directive without explaining the rationale behind it. That’s where empathy comes in.

I’ll go back to our revitalized initiatives this year around community engagement. We’ve updated our community pillars to target homelessness, hunger and mental health advocacy. That last one impacts my own family. And so, I want to reduce any stigma that remains surrounding it. I want my team to know why mental health matters to me.

It’s been a blessing to see how our teams want to engage with one of more of our community engagement pillars. These efforts have nothing to do with our bottom line; they are purely for the benefit of our communities. And that is, in fact, the grassroots foundation of all credit unions — to serve our communities, to make them better.

Empathy is vital for leaders. It says to your team that you understand what they’re going through because you’ve walked that path yourself.

I really believe that when my staff knows I’m struggling with them, when they know I’m on the field battling with them, it is much more impactful.

When you’re an empathetic leader, the tough decisions you have to make are better understood and better accepted, and that builds better collaboration, a better environment and a better culture.

Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?

Sure. There was a time our organization needed an employee to move to a new role. It wasn’t a role this person had applied for or even expressed interest in. But there was a need, and I knew this person was right for the job.

Because of the level of trust between us — and because I was willing to walk this path with this particular employee — the news went down easier than it otherwise might have. The employee knew I cared. He knew he wasn’t being sent off to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself. My empathy took away any defensiveness he may have had and allowed him to see my vision.

Without empathy, that employee may have wondered: Did I do something wrong? Why do I have to leave a job I’m good at for something unknown?

At the end of the day, this person knew it was time to learn something new. He knew he was needed in this other role. And he trusted that I cared about his future and career. I told him about how I had intentionally moved from one division to another throughout my career and how much that experience benefitted me. This move was for the betterment of our organization, but I also believed it would benefit the employee I challenged to take on this new role.

I’m happy to say that the employee who accepted a new — and unexpected — move thrived in that role.

How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?

That’s the $1 million question. I think balance is one of the biggest challenges a leader ever faces. I know it’s one of mine.

Because I’ve gone through layoffs myself — and have shared those experiences with my team — they know I empathize if our company has to go through the same. Because my team knows I care about them, they’re more likely to trust the tough decisions I make.

It goes back to those three character traits we talked about. The tough conversations are easier to have when your team knows you care. It mitigates any second-guessing.

If I have to make a tough decision like laying off employees, my team knows I didn’t make the decision lightly and that I weighed all possible options.

I don’t know if I answered your weighty question about how to balance the head and the heart. It’s something I admit to struggling with. But I do believe the heart has to play a role in every tough business decision.

How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?

Sympathy is sharing grief. It’s being sad about a negative event in someone else’s life. It’s saying, “I’m sorry about what you’re going through.”

Empathy is bigger than sympathy. Empathy says, “I understand your grief because I’ve been there, too.” It’s more comforting. It’s the ability to walk a mile in someone’s shoes. With it, there’s an inherent call to action. It asks the empathizer not just to be a bystander or witness to someone’s struggle — but to walk with the person who’s suffering.

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

For me, it’s letting employees know I want to understand their struggles and celebrate their successes.

Visiting our branches is one of the most important things I do. I can be told a lot, but when I’m onsite and sitting down with my teammates, it better equips me to understand the challenges our teammates are faced with.

Collaboration is so much easier when people feel you’re meeting them where they are.

Learning to listen closely is one of the most important skills a leader can have. And it’s not enough to just listen. Leaders need to listen and care at the same time.

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

Empathy is really the ability to understand people and what makes them tick. It requires us to slip into someone else’s skin. Empathy is about being human; it transcends race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and any other category you could name.

When you have empathy, it doesn’t matter that your lived experience is different from someone else’s. All that matters is that you’re trying to understand what they’re going through and that you support them.

What’s your approach to ensuring that succession planning is a holistic process, and not just confined to the top layers of management? How do you communicate this philosophy through the organization?

I know from my own experience that the lines involved in sketching out a succession plan aren’t always vertical. They can be horizontal, diagonal, jagged. You don’t always need to be concerned about the vertical line. A horizontal move might get you where you want to go — and possibly even faster.

I believe in coaching and developing people and believe that oft-heard statement: “Coach your team so that they can go anywhere. But treat them so well that they never want to leave.”

As for succession planning for my position…we haven’t gotten there yet. But succession planning is, or should be, an important part of HR’s function at every company. It won’t be long before we begin thinking about my eventual successor, although I’m nowhere near thinking about retirement.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

1 . Leading with empathy boosts my own morale and my team’s morale. Leaders need to spend time walking around the office or getting out to meet people in other regions and divisions. When senior leaders are visible to the workforce, it makes for a much happier workplace. Plus, being involved at a grassroots level helps me make better decisions for the company.

2 . Leading with empathy leads to more effective conflict resolution. Once you establish yourself as an empathetic leader, you can have tough conversations with your team without fear of being misconstrued. As I shared earlier, I’ve always believed that people don’t care what you know until they know you care about them.

3 . Having empathy improves collaboration. Your team knows that when you show up for them, it’s to try to make their work lives better. You’ll get much more participation and engagement from folks when you’ve proven yourself to have empathy.

4 . Communication improves when people know their leader is empathetic. There’s an inherent trust that exists between leader and staff.

5 . During periods of change — which is a constant in business and in life — a leader who’s proven themself to be empathetic can help calm fears. (Conversely, a leader who’s not known to be empathetic may stoke fears.)

Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

Sure, there are. I often use “Heavy head, heavy heart” to describe how I feel about making tough decisions that could negatively impact even one member of my team. I work hard to make sound business decisions. I’ve learned it’s OK for me to have a heavy heart over some of my decisions, but I can’t allow it to take over. I can’t let my heart overrule my head.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

I realize that all 295 Sharonview employees are counting on me to make good decisions and to lead confidently. And I never forget that many of my decisions impact not just those employees, but their families, too.

I never want any employee to feel that I didn’t take them into account in my deliberations and decision-making. That’s what keeps me awake at night.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would double — no, triple — the amount of community engagement work we do. I wish we had the staff to teach financial literacy to every elementary and middle school in every community we serve. People live better lives when they feel they’re in control of their finances.

How can our readers further follow you online?

I’d love to connect on LinkedIn. My profile is And readers can follow Sharonview Federal Credit Union on our website, on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram. Our team does a fantastic job with social media. I’d love for people to check out what we’re doing as a company and as a catalyst for change in our communities.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.

Herb White Of Sharonview Federal Credit Union: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.