Recommended Reading

CU execs discuss some of their favorite books on business and leadership.

May 1, 2011

Books by and about noted leaders, successful organizations, and brilliant business strategies can inspire, spark ideas, affirm opinions, help solve problems, and even entertain. Here are book recommendations from three CEOs.

Shipboard wisdom

As president/CEO of $510 million asset University of Hawaii Federal Credit Union, Honolulu, Jeanine Morse recommends “It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy,” by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff. “I attended a conference where he spoke, and I was intrigued by the ideas he shared,” she says. “I felt his management style closely matched my own.”

After reading the book, Morse shared it with her senior management team. “Your staff should know what’s important to you. It’s not enough to have philosophies; you must share them with the organization.”

The Abrashoff book discusses how his ship, the USS Benfold, routinely failed its naval exercises. Abrashoff turned the crew’s “lackluster performance around by using strategies never employed in the Navy before,” says Morse. While a lot of the strategies are common sense, “in a huge bureaucracy like the Navy it’s hard to make changes,” she explains.

Abrashoff’s philosophy centers on empowering people and giving them the freedom to make decisions. He writes about the command and control strategy, and how it has become ineffective in today’s workplace, says Morse. “If you’re looking for innovative ideas, you won’t get them with that strategy.”

The book includes an alarming statistic: When people leave a company, 65% are leaving their managers, according to a Gallup study. “I believe it,” says Morse. “If there’s no leadership and people aren’t motivated, you lose the good ones. They can go elsewhere and you’re left with the underperformers.”

“It’s Your Ship” talks about building trust and removing obstacles in your subordinates’ way, so they can do what they do best. “They have a lot of good ideas and you need ways for them to put those ideas into practice,” she says.

Although the book is about a ship, it could apply to any organization, she notes. “When I became CEO a year ago, I saw there was a very autocratic culture and I knew it had to change. I also knew I had to set the example. I had to show the staff I trusted and valued them. When they asked questions, I’d routinely ask them what they thought we should do. It’s not easy, but you have to start somewhere.”

That’s what Abrashoff advocates. “He lived and breathed it,” says Morse. “If he asked his sailors to do something, he did it, too.”

A key insight from the book: While it’s important to share your successes, you should share your failures, too—it shows you’re human. “When you make a bad decision—and we all do—admit it and don’t be afraid to change course,” Morse advises. “Successful people don’t live with bad decisions.”

Tough situations

As president/CEO of $261 million asset Capital Educators Federal Credit Union, Meridian, Idaho, Todd Erickson recently read two books that resonate: “The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do,” by Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller, and “To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson,” by Heidi Swinton.

The latter book describes how Monson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, employed certain leadership skills at the helm of a large organization. “It’s not a bunch of textbook information; it gives real examples of how he handles tough situations and works with people,” says Erickson.

“Both books echo the same theme—that leaders need to be examples to their employees,” he adds. “They need to have vision and the ability to move their organizations forward, even in a tough economy.

“Talking to and motivating the people who work for you is one of the most important things you can do,” Erickson adds. “They need to know you have honesty and integrity, you respect them as workers, and you won’t try to micromanage them—you’ll let them do their work.”

The best business-related book Erickson has read is still Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” He appreciates the leadership techniques combined with real-life stories.

“It talks about how to deal with people and understand where your co-workers and employees are coming from,” he says. “I could relate it to my own marriage and family—family life spills over into the workplace quite a bit and Covey does a good job of bringing that out.”

The standout insight for Erickson is that it’s important to work toward a win-win situation. “If something is good for the credit union but not for members—or the reverse—it’s not a good decision,” he says. “If it’s good for both, that’s generally what you want to go with.”

Reality check

As president/CEO of $281 million asset Great Plains Federal Credit Union, Joplin, Mo., Ken Martin recently read “The Sellout: How Three Decades of Wall Street Greed and Government Mismanagement Destroyed the Global Financial System,” by Charles Gasparino. “I had an understanding of what caused the economic downturn, but I didn’t know all the details,” he says.

“It was a perfect storm, with Wall Street bureaucrats and everyone else looking the wrong way and not measuring risk,” he adds. “It finally filtered down to the financial institution level, with many chasing yields and trying to beat the market­place by lowering their standards of risk management.”

The book hearkens back to the ’70s, when home ownership laws changed and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac restructured their lending standards.

“There were too many people in houses they couldn’t afford,” Martin says. “The meltdown started in the housing sector and bled into others. It’s interesting how not only finance got hurt, but also insurance, and the political realm. There were a lot of people involved who didn’t have full knowledge of the risks.

“People were finding ways to make more money from derivatives and other risky assets,” he continues. “Investment banks packaged risky instruments to make them look less risky and got insurers like AIG to guarantee them. And they later got wiped out.”

Political and policy changes at the highest levels contributed to the debacle, along with regulators’ and other bureaucrats’ interpretations of the changes, Martin notes. “And there was a lot of corporate greed that got us to where we ended up.”

Martin has discussed insights from the book with his board and management team—particularly with the asset and liability committee. “We want to improve our structure so we can do a better job of interpreting interest-rate risk and enterprise-wide risk, and monitor and react to risk more quickly.”

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