Just one letter differentiates the titles of CFO and CEO, but former finance executives say the leap to the top spot at a credit union involves a fundamental change in outlook and the development of fresh skills.
“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says Jason Peach, who 19 months ago took over as president/CEO of West Community Credit Union in O’Fallon, Mo.
The well-traveled path from CFO to CEO remains a popular one, due to finance professionals’ risk management skills, their understanding of the levers that produce balance-sheet success, and their regular interaction with boards, senior leaders, and managers.
But a shift in credit unions’ focus--sparked by heightened market competition and the new consumer and workforce dynamics of the digital age--has broadened the pool of characteristics boards seek in top executives.
Emerging C-suite positions such as Chief Strategic Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Culture Officer, and Executive Vice President have become springboards into CEO roles as well.
So CFOs with ambitions of running the show must adopt a more universal understanding of the organization’s mission and develop crucial soft skills to complement their knowledge of the hard-and-fast financial rules.
“You can’t just be the CFO in a CEO’s body,” says Brandon Michaels, who for the last five years has served as president/CEO of Mazuma Credit Union in Overland Park, Kan.
Peach, Michaels, and Suzanne Weinstein--who recently completed her first year as president/CEO at Orlando Federal Credit Union--shared some of the successes and challenges of their career journeys at a breakout session of the CUNA CFO Council Conference.
“Regardless of the letters in front of your name, these are general leadership ideas that helped us become stronger leaders within our organization,” Peach says.
Those pointers include:
• Be personable. In addition to being accurate and analytical, be inspiring, engaging, visionary, sociable.
“People want to work for people they like,” Peach says. “Others might criticize that as a popularity contest. Well, duh. That's how business works. That’s how deals get done--not by the power you bring to the table. Really spend some time on people wanting you to be in the room with you, working with you. There is no right answer, so there is a give and take.”
• Broaden your scope. Gain an understanding of the important role played by various arms of the organization, including marketing, lending, culture, and human resources.
“Be the flower that opens up,” Michaels says. “Some CFOs might find those other topics boring, but lift yourself up and out of the CFO role you must understand all the facets of a credit union.”
• Demonstrate you’re well-rounded. Express your interest in the world outside finance to co-workers, but most importantly, to the board.
“If you’re talking to board only about finance-specific things, that runs counter to your ambitions,” Michaels says. “You want to be known as a knowledge hub as CFO, but they’re also seeing that you’re only talking about finance. Open yourself up.”
• Tap into your emotional intelligence. “Understand what makes you tick; how you react to certain situations,” Michaels says. “As CEO, you might frown when you should have smiled, and you have no idea the impact that carries through the organization. If you come into the office and you’re not your chipper self, the entire organization is going to feel that.”
• Seek an appropriate mentor. Weinstein didn’t want career input from just anyone. She sought out a CEO who had come up through the accounting ranks.
And as a mother whose husband often traveled internationally, she wanted a parent who believed in a strong work-life balance. "I wanted them to have walked in my shoes,” she says.
Likewise, don’t try to assume the identity of the current CEO, because the board might value entirely different skills and strategies going forward.
• Retrain your thought parameters. Don’t discount the financial implications of decisions, but consider what is best for the medium- and long-term growth of the credit union.
“It took me a long time to get outside the box, and not assign dollars and labels,” Weinstein says. “Sometimes it’s easier to do it with someone in a credit union across the country rather than in your own shop.”
• Forge your vision. Peach earned the interview for the CEO position because of his work as CFO at West Community. But in his interview the board didn’t ask a single question about his financial knowledge.
“It’s all about culture and vision,” he says. “If you haven't tried to answer those questions out loud, please do because it’s different to think it than to articulate it, and the first few times it might not come out as eloquently as you’d like.”
• Embrace “verbal gymnastics.” As the captain of the credit union, you will be approached with ideas and requests constantly. Understand the responsibility of your position and the art of debate.
“You will be communicating all day because you are between people and want they want,” Peach says. “They will try to persuade, you will try to persuade. That’s a lot of verbal gymnastics.”
• Take a big-picture view. By nature, CFOs are detail-oriented. “But when you’re CEO, details don’t matter,” Michaels says. “Imagine the COO coming to you with all her or his problems, and the CLO and CIO. There’s not enough time in the day to get involved in the details of their work.”
Despite the inevitable growing pains, Peach, Michaels and Weinstein all express satisfaction in their decision to move from CFO to CEO and encourage others to do the same.
“Each of you who are going after it have an incredibly opportunity to shape members’ lives and team members’ lives. It’s an awesome responsibility to be at helm of an organization that’s thriving and growing,” Michaels says. “All of you can do it. Go after it if you’re thinking about doing it. Don’t look back.”
►Click here for more conference coverage from CUNA News, and get live updates on Twitter via @AdamMertzCUNA, @cumagazine, and @CUNACouncils, and by using the #CFOCouncil hashtag. Learn more about the CUNA CFO Council, a member-led professional society for credit union executives, at cunacouncils.org.