The path toward becoming a chief lending officer (CLO)—no matter where you start—begins with realizing and vocalizing your intentions.
“If you’re looking to make the climb, you need to communicate and be honest with your supervisor,” says Jessica McNear, digital solutions lending manager at $413 million asset Wanigas Credit Union in Saginaw, Mich. “Tell them what your aspirations are and how you want to move that way. If you’re honest and you’re willing to work with them, you will find opportunities.”
McNear, who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2020 and graduated from CUNA Management School in 2021, is in the process of her climb. She addressed the CUNA Lending Council’s People, Process and Technology Virtual Series with Jeremy Pinard, CLO at $2.4 billion asset Vantage West Credit Union in Tucson, Ariz., and Gail Enda, CEO at $8.9 billion asset American Airlines Federal Credit Union in Fort Worth, Texas.
Pinard and Enda believe getting involved in a variety of areas played a big role in their advancement.
“There’s nothing wrong with sometimes taking sideways steps in an organization to broaden yourself,” Enda says. “I did not start my career even working in a credit union. I’ve ended up in a credit union. It’s the best place to be and I wish I found it earlier in life.
“As you start to move up in the organization, evolving from being an expert in one area to being a big-picture thinker is really important,” she continues. “So please work on project teams. You learn so much when you work on project teams. You make connections. You find mentors.”
Your career path likely won’t be a straight line, says Pinard, stressing it’s essential for job candidates to find the right credit union for them to ensure the right culture fit.
“Understand that a ‘no’ right now may not be a no forever,” McNear adds. “Continue to ready yourself and you will find your way there.”
Enda warns against becoming static. She believes CLOs should focus on more than lending and also nurture the credit union’s culture and treat employees and members the right way.
Success requires keeping an eye on long-term strategy and goals. To avoid getting stuck in the weeds of day-to-day activities, Enda and Pinard block off time on their schedules to think and strategize. They also cultivate collaborative groups of people to bounce those ideas off of, inside and outside of the credit union.
“It’s critical as leaders that we create a bench and a talent pool,” Pinard says. “Take an interest in your teams and employees’ roles and professional development plans. Try to guide them to keep developing, growing, and learning so when it’s time, they’re ready to move up.”
Having a strong team in place frees up more time for the CLO to develop long-term goals and strategies. A long-term lens is crucial in a financial industry that is seeing constant technological advancements.
While it may be impossible to keep up with all technology, Pinard believes it’s crucial for credit unions to realize their core capabilities and be willing to outsource other aspects to experts.
“Sometimes CLOs think we have to offer every type of loan,” he says. “That doesn’t work. What are you good at and what do you want to be good at?”
That focus doesn’t can shift. The lending process is growing more automated, which should allow credit unions to expand member services.
Don’t fear technological changes, Enda says, and embrace soft skills. “Lenders can become more of life coaches and financial coaches for our members.”