Learning to lead isn’t a finite process, say credit union CEOs. It’s a lifelong quest that requires focusing on people, rethinking personal strengths and weaknesses, and challenging the status quo.
No set rules
Robert V. Taylor, president/CEO of $115 million asset Idaho State University Credit Union, Pocatello, says he was valued for his technical skills early in his career. But when he moved into management, people skills became more important.
And when he began managing managers, people skills became “priceless,” he says. “You need the ability to influence people to accomplish goals.”
As a new manager, Taylor had to learn how to lead. “I had mentors to teach me, but it was a lot of trial and error,” he admits. “I read a lot and attended conferences, too.”
Leadership isn’t only a function of title or rank, he says. “That doesn’t automatically garner trust. We’ve all seen ineffective people in leadership positions. But true leaders will lead regardless of their positions.”
Leadership means instilling confidence, vision, and passion in people, says Taylor. “You recognize the strengths and weaknesses of teams and put together people who complement each other. Or you coach people through their weaknesses.”
Taylor also believes employee satisfaction or dissatisfaction links directly to the boss’s relationship skills. “There are no bad employees. We mostly make good hiring decisions and people want to do a good job,” he says. “If something is wrong, either processes need adjusting or there’s bad leadership.”
Leaders need to learn as much about themselves as about their employees, he says. “I went to a weeklong leadership school and learned a lot about myself, my personality, tendencies, and shortcomings, and what I needed to do to modify myself with different people so I could communicate and inspire,” Taylor says.
“Leadership styles,” he adds, “are as varied as personalities. There’s no one set of rules to follow.”
But whatever you do, he says, don’t check out or rest on your laurels. “Learning about leadership skills is a lifelong process. We might think we’ve heard it all, but we need to stay engaged and have passion.”
Vision, values, and culture
About five years before retiring, the former CEO of $1.3 billion asset University Federal Credit Union, Austin, Texas, asked Tony Budet, then chief financial officer, if
he was interested in the top job.
“He made it clear it wasn’t his to give, that the board would decide, but that he’d help me prepare,” says Budet, current president/CEO.
“He said, ‘You’re good with numbers, but this isn’t a numbers business. It’s a people and relationships business and you stink at people. We can work together over the next five years.’ ”
That mentoring changed Budet’s outlook, he admits. He now focuses on people, on issues of vision, values, and culture, and on equipping himself to take advantage of opportunities.
Executive coaching was helpful, he says. “I participated in a six-month program with an open 360 Evaluation. It was a carefully structured environment, to make it safe for employees to reveal what they thought of me.
“Things like, ‘Tony can be arrogant and judgmental,’ ” were some of the comments Budet says he received. “The coach helped me through it not only professionally, but holistically, and it was very useful.”
Budet has since put his leadership team through the program. “They said some very real, candid things about each other,” he says. And at the end of the program they asked each other questions like, “ ‘You said this; have I made any progress?’ Now when our executive team sits around the table, we’ve said all the things that need to be said.”
Part of leadership is identifying how best to add value to the role, says Budet. “Once you understand how you affect people, it frees you to think more openly about how you can effect change in your role.”
At a seminar Budet attended that covered delegation, the speaker drew a boat and said, “If you made a decision that blew up, where would the hole in the boat’s hull be? Below the waterline where the organization sinks? Or above, where you can patch it?”
A CEO should manage everything below the waterline and delegate everything else, the speaker concluded. “Putting that in place was the most difficult thing in my career,” Budet remembers.
“I had to completely rethink what I was here to do,” he says. “It was painful, but we’re a much faster-paced organization and we’ve had no turnover in executives since.”
Leading a credit union is very different from a for-profit organization, notes Budet. “We’re very values-driven and our purpose is different from banks’. We can do more creative things, have more fun, build stronger relationships, and do things you couldn’t do elsewhere in the world of finance.”
Next: Continuous learning