Libby Calderone

Want to be a leader? ‘Find your voice’

Doing so “can be the most rewarding thing you will ever do,” says Libby Calderone.

August 9, 2019

While women represent the majority of employees in credit unions, they’re not represented in leadership roles at the same level, says Libby Calderone, president of ICUL Service Corp. (LSC), the credit union service organization of the Illinois Credit Union System (ICUS).

Attaining leadership positions requires women to find their voice, she says. While doing so may be difficult—even scary—it can be the most rewarding action you take.

Calderone offers her thoughts on how to overcome workplace challenges, shares her leadership philosophy, and offers advice for new leaders.

What are some of the biggest challenges to leadership?

You need to find your voice if you want to be a leader. It’s not just speaking. It’s your physical presence, your thoughts, your ideas, your knowledge, and your command.

Some workplace biases are obvious, but others are more subtle, such as not letting you speak or cutting you off when you do speak.

Many biases are not even intentional. I believe most people want to be respectful and professional.

Nevertheless, finding your voice and speaking up is the only way to overcome biases against women. Accepting it and swallowing your objections can no longer be tolerated.

Women represent the majority of employees in credit unions, but they are not represented in leadership at that same level. Finding your voice is hard, and finding your voice is scary. But it can be the most rewarding thing you will ever do.

I encourage women to speak up for themselves and share their knowledge and opinions. You have value to contribute—don’t be afraid to do it.

Can you share an example from your career?

I can think of many times, especially early in my career, when I would go to a meeting, serve on a committee or board, or even attend a golf outing and I would be the only woman in attendance.

It’s intimidating to walk into a setting like that, but it gets easier each time you do it. Walk in with confidence, be proud, and don’t be afraid to have a sense of humor.

My sense of humor has allowed people to feel comfortable with me, and this comfort enhances my ability to share my voice. And, of course, I did my homework so I could be confident and know my subject matter.

I have also been blessed to have some very supportive men in my life—men who never for a second treated me as less than adequate because I was a woman. These relationships, both personal and professional, helped grow my confidence to have my voice.

What’s your leadership philosophy?

I don’t know if my leadership philosophy is special because I am a woman. It’s essentially the golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated.

I never ask my team to do any more or have higher standards than I would set for myself. I treat them with respect and always assume they are committed to doing the best job they can.

Leadership is a privilege, and I always try to treat it as such.

What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position?

You can never over-communicate. You may feel you have adequately shared information but be sensitive to information vacuums.

If there is a vacuum, people will fill it—usually with information that’s not accurate. So, fill the vacuum with the information you want.

Don’t be afraid to address problems when they first bubble up. My regrets in my career have always been when I let situations exist that needed to be addressed, and I hesitated in the hopes they would get better. That rarely happens, and instead the situations typically get worse.

I always use the phrase “what you permit, you promote.” If, as a leader, you don’t take the time to correct a situation, process, or culture, you are in effect giving it your tacit approval and thereby promoting it.

Not everyone wants to be a leader, and that’s OK. Organizations need both leaders and followers. Both are critical to your success.

For this reason, I know everyone plays a vital role, and I respect them. I love to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion—everyone’s story is unique and brings value.

The more we talk about it, the better we make our credit unions, the industry, and, dare I say, the world.

Let’s celebrate our diversity. Vive la difference!

‘We’re committed to being a DEI leader’

A lack of diversity in your credit union may lead to a homogenization of ideas, creating stagnation and limited growth opportunities, says Libby Calderone, president of ICUL Service Corp. (LSC), the credit union service organization of the Illinois Credit Union System (ICUS).

“Diverse people bring diverse skills to the workplace,” she says. “Varied and diverse life experiences, educational backgrounds, and cultural styles all help weave a mosaic of talent that can improve problem solving and strategic direction.

“You can’t find the talent by focusing on one homogenous group. Given the current low employment rate and the demand for talent, it makes good business sense to broaden your work force. Including a mix of individuals with a variety of ideas, differing viewpoints, thought processes, backgrounds, and experiences creates optimal work cultures.”

Conversely, a singular viewpoint can limit growth for both individual employees and the credit union, Calderone says.

“Employees can become subject to ‘group think’ and never step out of their comfort zones to consider new or different ideas,” she says. “Their professional development will suffer, limiting growth opportunities and stifling creativity.

“Credit union growth can suffer too. An employee base and a board of directors that doesn’t reflect the diversity within a credit union’s membership will not adequately develop, manage, and grow products and services that members want and need.”

As a result, the credit union brand will not resonate with members, Calderone adds. “Credit unions are member-owned. It only makes sense that the employees and directors should reflect that membership.”

Credit unions can start to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) by conducting a demographic study of their fields of membership, she notes. “Compare that study to the makeup of the staff and board, and note where the credit union may be lacking.”

When recruiting for positions, she adds, make a concerted effort to attract new, qualified staff and directors who reflect the field of membership. Use a variety of methods to attract these new individuals.

“For example, if you only use current employee and director referrals, you run the risk of just mimicking your current staff and director composition because people tend to refer those who are like themselves,” Calderone says. “While referrals can be a great source of new talent, it shouldn’t be the only source."

LSC and ICUS foster DEI by creating and mandating awareness throughout the company, she says. The organizations require employees to complete various trainings throughout the year on DEI topics.

“We focus on mindfulness by hosting unconscious bias training, Calderone says, citing an on-site workshop that brought staff together to discuss DEI issues and share open and honest feedback about incorporating more activities into the workplace.

“We have integrated DEI themes into our annual convention and educational sessions, addressing both workplace issues and product offerings,” she says. “LSC/ICUS is committed to being a leader for DEI.”