Taking Leadership to the Next Level

Don’t check out or rest on your laurels.

August 1, 2011

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

Continuous learning

Jackie Buchanan, president/CEO of $1.3 billion asset Genisys Credit Union, Auburn Hills, Mich., comes from a family of entrepreneurs.

She finds similarities and dissimilarities in leading different organization types. “The human resource issues are similar, but when you own a small business, you answer to yourself.

“In leading a credit union, you’re responsible for managing your members’ money and their financial well-being, as well as that of your employees and their fam­ilies,” she continues. “And most small businesses aren’t subject to the many regulatory compliance issues financial institutions face.”

Buchanan constantly evaluates her strengths and weaknesses and strives to improve. “I read a lot of leadership books, serve on boards, and force myself out of my comfort zone as much as I can.”

Frequent conversations with employees reveal excellent insights on their views of their work and the membership base. “Keeping in close contact with my team, and also networking with my peers, have been key factors for me in helping Genisys stay strong through the economic downturn.”

Continuous learning is critical for effective leaders at any level, she adds. “Leaders are charged with challenging the status quo and bringing about change.

“Without continuous learning,” she adds, “the organizational conversation never changes. And senior leadership should be the caretakers of the conversation to drive the strategy of the organization.”

Buchanan’s advice for new leaders: “There will be times when you’ll need advice you just won’t be able to get from your team,” she emphasizes. And for seasoned leaders: “Don’t forget to listen.”

Be true to yourself

For Ron Burniske, president/CEO of $1.9 billion asset Chartway Federal Credit Union, Virginia Beach, Va., asking how he keeps his leadership skills sharp is like asking how baseball players keep their hitting skills sharp. “They’ll say, ‘I play every day.’”

He uses his leadership skills every day, he says. Still, as an organization changes, leaders have to keep learning. “We changed our business model two years ago—a complete transformation of our business—and we have to learn new skills to augment our effectiveness,” he explains. “We have to learn how to best run each aspect of our business, from streamlining processes to motivating employees.”

Burniske reads extensively, too, and believes you can learn from any type of book. “I read the Harvard Medical Journal every month, and can draw from the way they handle technical processes to run a better debit card program.”

To be a good leader, you have to be true to yourself, he says. “It can’t just be because you want recognition. If you do it from who you are as a person, you’re a leader. But if you try to emulate someone, you’re not being yourself.”

You can use methods others have found to be successful, he clarifies. “But people can see right through you if you’re not being true to yourself. I think that’s where people fail.”

After 27 years as CEO, coming to work is still fun for Burniske. “When I started we had one branch and $90 million in assets. Today we have 66 branches. We have a great atmosphere here and I have good people working for me.”

He holds town hall meetings every Friday to locations across the nation, via video conference, discussing the credit union’s competitive advantages. “I talk about my vision for the credit union, how people should be treated, who we are as an organization, and that we’re all accountable for our success.”

He thinks it’s easier in some ways to lead a nonprofit. “We’re focused on one thing—the mission of the organization. Whether it’s the Red Cross, United Way or a credit union, we’re delivering a better value proposition to members,” he says.

“In a for-profit company, it’s all about driving share price. Longevity is thrown out the window in favor of the quarterly share price.

“We’re focused on our long-term mission,” continues Burniske. At the same time, he notes, leading a nonprofit can be more demanding. “There’s no definitive measurement tool. How do you truly determine how you compare to last quarter?”

Being a credit union CEO 20 years ago was simpler, he reflects. “The leadership role has evolved as pressure from regulators, boards, and the competition has increased. You have to have fun, laugh at yourself, and challenge yourself. There’s a lot in life besides work—stay well-rounded. You’ll be a better leader.”