Advice for Tomorrow’s Leaders  

Cultivate good interpersonal skills, and know the right questions to ask.

July 1, 2012

The path to excellent leadership oftenincludes some form of executive training. Among the options for credit union executive training is CUNA Management School (visit and select “CUNA Management School” under “Education and Training”).

Now in its 58th year, CUNA Management Schoolhas a reputation as a quality, three-year executive education program that has prepared nearly 4,800 students. To those students and other aspiring leaders, experienced CEOs share their thoughts on the skills and qualities future credit union leaders will need to be successful.

Focus on people

The most important leadership qualities, says Gary Easterling, president/CEO of $1.5 billion asset United Federal Credit Union, Saint Joseph, Mich., include a continuous learning mindset and a focus on communication and relationships.

“We commissioned a study about a year ago, using focus groups and interviews, on competencies for CEOs of large credit unions,” he explains.

Thirteen competencies rose to the surface. The best CEOs can:

► Direct change;
► Inspire appropriate behavior;
► Encourage trust; and
► Manage their boards and executive teams.

Also, they’re active listeners, honest and ethical, respectful and inclusive, moral, responsible, dependable, empowering, and visionary.

“What’s interesting is that things like business acumen are table stakes,” he reflects. “You can’t lead without them, but it’s really about people skills. As you rise through the organization, you’ll perform fewer operational tasks yourself and get things done through other people.

“You can have the world’s greatest plan, but if your people can’t execute it, you’re sunk,” he adds. “But talented people can overcome a very poor plan. During World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower said, ‘In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.’ ”

It’s critical to get people involved in planning, Easterling says. “Then, when they see a curveball, they can adjust their swings.”

He also advises listening intently and asking questions. “You find out so much by asking the right questions. It gives you a chance for discovery, and you can find out very quickly how well people know their subject matter and how agile they are.

“Always remember that board members are volunteers, and take time to figure out what’s driving them,” he continues. “The better you understand them, the better you can get board consensus out of many voices.”

Communicate well

Leaders need to make quick decisions, stay on top of technology trends, and have good judgment and written and verbal skills. Those are the top skill sets recommended by Dan Kester, president/CEO of $256 million asset Sooper Credit Union, Denver, Colo.

“I’ve found communication skills very important—I didn’t realize at first how important—for engaging with staff,” he says. “We use all available tools and technology, which is great for getting your thoughts out to a wide group. I don’t know how we did it in the past.”

In fact, it would have helped Kester to know the value of communication when he moved in 1996 from a credit union with eight employees, to Sooper, which now has 88 staff, he explains. “I had to learn quickly that communication is important.

“You need to let your staff, members, and board know what’s going on as soon as something happens and what you foresee,” he adds. “Otherwise, the rumor mill explodes. Be up front with people.”

In the past few years, Kester’s leadership team has made tough decisions, such as closing a branch, downsizing, selling a building, and building a new one. “When we come out and explain something, we’re often pleasantly surprised how well people grasp it,” he says. “They get excited about the direction we’re heading.

“I’ve had to learn to delegate and trust in my people as we’ve grown into a large organization,” he adds. “I used to keep it under my thumb too much. Now employees handle operations, and they do a great job.”

Leaders should be confident, Kester adds. “It’s OK to be a bit different, a bit irreverent. Be proud of giving the credit union more than you receive, be proud of your credit union, and be fair.”

And look for role models, he suggests. “I had many, including my father. He wasn’t in the credit union industry, but he said things like, ‘Do the job right the first time,’ and they stuck with me.”

Kester’s most important advice:

► Keep members in mind;
► Understand your members and your niche;
► Listen to members;
► Find out their needs; and
► Meet those needs.

“You can’t be successful in a credit union if you lose sight of members,” he says.

Be well-rounded

Being as well-rounded as possible is extremely helpful, says Wayne Bunker, president/CEO of $1.7 billion asset Provident Credit Union, Redwood City, Calif.

“Get exposure to, and a solid understanding of, all areas of credit union operations,” he suggests. “It’s important to have expertise in financial
management—everything from asset/liability management and investments to budgeting.

It’s equally important,” he adds, “to have good interpersonal skills so you can successfully
work with members, employees, and your board
of directors.”

He also stresses the importance of knowing the right questions to ask. “That comes from a combination of experience and technical knowledge,” he says. “You obtain technical knowledge from formal education and training, and by working in or being exposed to all areas of the operation.”

Bunker advises getting as much relevant formal education as possible. “The more pertinent the education is to your job, the more it will prepare you for executive positions,” he says.

“Business and finance degrees are valuable in the credit union industry. And graduate degrees like M.B.A., or professional designations like CPA, might give you an edge,” he adds. “Also, take advantage of the excellent credit union industry programs like CUNA Management School—I’m a 1981 graduate.”

It’s helpful to have mentors or role models, he says, so you can learn from people who’ve been successful. “They can share their experiences and things they’ve learned from years at the executive level.”

Mentors can find you, he adds, but if you observe people you might like to emulate, talk to them. Many people would be honored to act as mentors.

“The executives I see being hired, particularly at the CEO level, are people with good educations and relevant experience. And they seem to be excellent choices,” he affirms. “I think the future of credit unions will be in good hands with this next generation of leaders.”