In October 2018, Reed became CEO at Lone Star after serving as its CIO. Too often, CEOs view CIOs as “firefighters” working on daily problems, especially at smaller credit unions, she says. They need a seat at the table when leadership makes strategic decisions.
Credit unions don’t just provide financial services, “we’re now technology companies,” she adds.
For the past four years, Reed has served as board chair of Pure IT Credit Union Services, a credit union service organization she co-founded. Pure IT assists credit unions with IT consulting, assessments, and other services.
Constant learning is a valuable attribute in a CIO, and one that can help in making the leap to CEO, she says.
“I’m always learning and trying to figure out better ways to do things,” Reed says. “I understand both the technology piece and the operations side of the credit union. Put those together and you see there are ways to remove friction from the employee and member experience.
“It’s a way of coming up with holistic solutions.”
Diplomacy and collaboration are two of the most important skills CIOs can develop on the way to the top spot.
“As a CEO, you have to practice diplomacy because you’re working with a board, other executives, department leaders, vendors, and peers in the industry,” Reed says. “If you can master soft skills such as diplomacy, empathy, communication, and emotional intelligence, it’s an easy transition to CEO.”
Mendez became Patelco’s CEO in 2013 after nearly 11 years as chief operating officer at a large credit union, where she oversaw IT and finance. Since then, Patelco’s assets have grown from $3.9 billion to $7.4 billion, and membership rose from 285,000 to 380,000.
She says several traits furthered her advancement, foremost among them keeping a constant eye on business growth.
“You have to translate everything you’re doing to business outcomes and critically think about how those outcomes match your technology solutions,” she says. “You need to be an over-the-top communicator and an effective collaborator. And you have to ensure the technical side connects its value to the business half.
“Your technology team is much more than just about technology. It’s about value creation.”
CIOs must appreciate the central role credit unions play in providing members with financial services through such avenues as application program interfaces and keeping members safe via cybersecurity measures.
“That’s beyond the backbone of what we do,” Mendez says. “The people who create this and bring it to life for the members’ benefit are those who can have the vision to become CEOs.”
Technology’s evolution has forced effective tech leaders to adapt. Early on, technology was centralized in the mainframe and systems were distributed. Today’s emphasis on digital technology has transformed how CIOs must mesh with the organization, Mendez says.
“Digital requires high collaboration and high engagement, much more so than the old centralized world did,” she says. “As CIOs see those changes, they must become business thought leaders. You have to understand a lot more than bits and bytes.”
The ability to combine critical thinking, collaboration, and communication is essential. But becoming a CEO also requires experience in working with the board of directors. At Patelco, the CIO gets substantial board experience through the board’s technology committee.
When CIOs can translate complex technical issues into easily understandable terms that resonate and convey their importance to board members and the CEO, the entire organization wins, Mendez says.
“That is a communication skill I see some technical executives miss, and yet it is crucial in your development if you want to be a CEO,” she says. “Exposure to the board develops a skill of taking complexities down to their essence to engage for a great outcome. Every CIO needs to figure out how to get that type of exposure.”
Markley cites the ability to build strong relationships as the most important aspect in becoming CEO at Hoosier Hills.
“Relationships are everything when it comes to business. But they are even more critical in credit unions,” he says. “Our model is driven by our relationships with members and the value of service. Having that in the CIO role is the most important piece to be able to transition to the CEO side.”
Markley says his previous credit union experience allowed him to learn about asset/liability management and how financial institutions work. It’s crucial for CIOs to absorb those broader organizational concepts and strategies, and immerse themselves in the business to move up.
“If you just stay behind the computer and do configurations, you can’t increase your circle of influence and your comfort with the various aspects of business. And you will struggle to move up,” Markley says. “Seek out opportunities to engage in finance, retail, card services, and electronic funds transfer. Engage those topics and learn about those aspects of the business. It will be incredibly valuable.”
Also, develop the vision to see what’s next and be agile in getting there, he advises.
Historically, credit unions haven’t had to be “on the bleeding edge of technology,” Markley says. But that may be changing.
“You need to anticipate what you have to provide not only for current members but also for future members,” he says.
Reed believes CIOs should build credibility and strengthen ties with their CEOs so both can benefit from the relationship. “CIOs have to walk arm in arm with CEOs. The CEO has the vision but the CIO has to figure out the road map to implement it. That experience translates well when you get to the CEO spot.”
As credit unions become more technology-focused organizations looking to serve new generations of members and succeed in a competitive marketplace, Reed says credit unions can reap major benefits from tapping the skills of tech leaders.
“When you have a CEO who really gets it from a technology perspective,” she says, “it’s a powerful combination, and it’s good for the members.”
Mark Sievewright, founder/CEO of Sievewright & Associates, underscores the need for CIOs to have a thirst for knowledge about their organizations, as well as a steady personality that can unlock employees’ potential.
“Be in touch with the emotional aspects of leadership. Listen attentively and respect the people around you,” Sievewright says. “Devote yourself to being a true servant leader. Instead of thinking you’re the only one who can make decisions on behalf of the credit union, take in ideas and support the success of everyone on your team.”
Sievewright, who has assisted with several credit union CEO searches, says CIOs need to focus broadly on all aspects of the credit union and expand their knowledge base.
“Learn as much as you possibly can about the credit union. Be a sponge for knowledge and information,” he says. “Zoom out, not in, from technology. Take time each day to think more broadly about your organization and your industry. Understand those financial statements and think more strategically about business. Know the needs of the member.”
Sievewright says strong tech leaders have a knack for identifying organizational or members needs before they become apparent—something that meshes well with the CEO role.
“One could argue the skill set of a great CIO lends itself to anticipating the future—and that’s what a CEO has to do strategically,” he says. “An effective leader finds and secures the future for his or her credit union.”