Exceptional leadership

Exceptional leadership

Pandemic reveals the need for forward-thinking leaders.

May 20, 2020

O Bee Credit Union in Lacey, Wash., is a 45-minute drive from the Kirkland, Wash., nursing home that was the initial epicenter of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

That proximity made the severity of the situation obvious early on, says James Collins, president/CEO of the $333 million asset credit union. “We figured that it was going to be a huge deal when some of the travel bans and the social distancing started to occur, and we made internal changes to assist both employees and members visiting us,” he says. “The restrictions began to be stricter, and it became obvious to safely do business that we were going to have to radically change our model.”


  • Planning ahead ensures staff and members know how the credit union will take on changing conditions.
  • Implementing an acknowledgement plan can inspire confidence in team members during a challenging time.
  • Board focus: Launching a task force allows leaders to act quickly in support of all areas of the credit union.

A plan of action

O Bee implemented a five-level response plan, and the crisis meant not only putting that plan into practice, but also moving to the highest level of the plan quickly. “We ended up closing our lobbies, using drive-thrus, expanding electronic services, reducing tons of fees, and doing everything we could to encourage electronic transactions,” Collins says.

The credit union’s proximity to the initial outbreak made it one of the first in the country to take these steps. But the unprecedented situation also provoked feelings of uncertainty and fear.

“Everybody is scared, and that goes for members, staff, and board members,” says Collins. “We try to encourage them, to say, ‘We’re with you.’”

The importance of demonstrating leadership in a constantly changing situation has become starkly apparent during the pandemic. For Collins, the biggest lesson was learning to stay a step ahead of current conditions so O Bee could move swifter for members and staff when needed.

“You have to be thinking not of where you are or where you’re going to be next week, but where you are going to be next month,” he says. “Make sure people understand that you have a plan. When we told our membership and employees early on what we were looking for and what would happen at the next alert level, things got better.”

‘Make sure people understand that you have a plan.’
James Collins

Rethinking communication

Crises often reveal effective leaders, says Donna Tona, a certified trauma specialist and vice president of logistics and client experience at Werkz Inc.

“The right leaders come to the forefront during times of crisis,” Tona says. “With COVID-19, that hour has now come for many leaders.”

Thoughtful communication is key to inspiring confidence in team members during a challenging time. But it’s not a traditional communication plan, she says.

“It’s an acknowledgement plan,” Tona says. “Emphasize what you want your listeners to take in, especially if the situation is volatile and unpredictable.”

She outlines several tips for putting an acknowledgement plan to work:

  • Share the load. When a crisis hits, assemble a team with the right qualities to execute a uniform message. “A leader doesn’t have to deal with everything directly,” Tona says. “Have a response team that can report back in.”
  • Be honest but empathetic. Don’t sugarcoat the situation, says Tona, because people can usually see through it. Hiding information, even if it’s bad news, can cause more anxiety. “Be open about the evolving nature of the problem. It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know.’”
  • Adapt to the environment. With teams working from home and others following special precautions in branches or offices, the situation isn’t normal—and communication styles should reflect that. Be authentic above all.
  • Be a storyteller. To build a sense of unity, share the details of how staff are going above and beyond to do their jobs. “If the IT team was up at 6 a.m., tell that story,” she says. “If they went through 16 pots of coffee, include that in the story—not a watered-down version.” These details show employees everyone is working together to keep the credit union going.
  • Keep spirits up. Look out for employees’ mental health. Sometimes that means adding levity to team members’ workdays. “There’s nothing wrong with having a bit of humor in this situation,” says Tona.

Credit union leaders nationwide have put their crisis response skills to work in ways consistent with Tona’s recommendations.

NEXT: Stick together, stay positive

Stick together, stay positive

At CDC Federal Credit Union in Atlanta, the need to look out for employees led to the creation of a special team. “We created a task force that includes folks from human resources, the retail side, and our accounting team, and we talk about what the plan needs to be,” says Australia Hoover, president at the $320 million asset credit union.

“What are the capabilities in every area of the credit union? How are our people doing? Are there any issues or growing concerns? Do they have enough supplies? We keep tabs on that.”

Despite the challenges the task force works to address, Hoover prioritizes sharing a positive outlook with staff. “That’s what I’m focused on right now: Making sure we’re a source of inspiration and a place they can turn to for some good news.”

Hoover also sees the potential for positive opportunities post-crisis. “We might need to be the model for economic reconstruction in individuals’ households,” he says. “That might be where the rest of the nation looks to make this recovery happen. We’re in a tremendous position to make people’s lives better.”

Support staff

Jason Lindstrom, president/CEO of $316 million asset Evergreen Credit Union in Portland, Maine, says taking care of staff means putting the financials aside and prioritizing the credit union’s “people aspect.”

“If our team is going to be successful, we need to give them the tools,” Lindstrom says. The credit union’s position is that paying employees who are home from work for two weeks is the right thing to do. “For us, that’s their hazard pay.”

Lindstrom also highlights how important it is for leaders to remain visible during a crisis—even if that can’t be done in person. “If you can’t go out to the branches and you can’t see your team, well-constructed emails about what it means to lead and what it means to be an essential employee make a world of difference.”

‘The right leaders come to the forefront during times of crisis.’
Donna Tona

At Credit Union of Southern California (CU SoCal), leaders knew that financial hardship was a huge concern for employees and that it needed to take aggressive action. The $1.7 billion asset credit union in Anaheim, Calif., gave $1,000 to every employee, regardless of length of employment. Temporary workers also received the money.

“This is an unprecedented time that demands extraordinary action,” says Dave Gunderson, CEO of CU SoCal. “Disruptions from the coronavirus are causing financial strain for our employees and their families. We wanted to provide help early on to ease some of these burdens.”

In Greenville, S.C., when the governor ordered schools to close, leadership at SC Telco Federal Credit Union knew the order would impact employees who didn’t have access to childcare.

To assist these employees, the credit union created Kids Kamp, which allows employees to bring their children—from kindergarten through eighth grade—to the corporate office during business hours for supervision.

“Guided by our core value of having the heart of a servant, our leadership team has been able to extend peace of mind to our staff and provide a tangible way to help them during this difficult time,” says Brian McKay, president/CEO of the $400 million asset credit union. “We know that when we take care of our employees, they are well-positioned to take care of our members. It’s a win-win.”

The credit union’s training room became the hub of Kids Kamp. Staff voluntarily picked up shifts to supervise the children, and some family members of staff also helped.

NEXT: High stress

High stress

With the stress of the pandemic affecting employees, many leaders keenly recognized that employee mental health was a crucial concern.

For essential front-line staff, anxiety could be particularly high. “They’re part of something bigger than themselves, and they’re putting their personal health at risk to keep their credit union going, their local communities going, and our national economy going,” says Bruce Adams, president/CEO of the Credit Union League of Connecticut.

The league identified mental health professionals to work with its member credit unions if needed.

“Crises like these are never the same,” Adams says. “Confident leadership and stability are the name of the game. You’ve got to start from scratch and build up your resources, tune your engine every day, and get better as you go along.”

Sandi Carangi, CEO at $79 million asset Mercer County Community Credit Union, Hermitage, Pa., recognized the pandemic caused a shift in employee needs.

“I think in the back of employees’ minds, they’ve always assumed the CEO was there to take care of the credit union and its members,” Carangi says. “But now, in just a couple of weeks, this has shifted to where employees want to know the CEO is taking care of them at this time of a great national crisis.”

Carangi points out the importance of comprehending employees’ differing levels of anxiety.

She recognized fear of contracting the virus, concerns about job security, and the stress of assisting members in dire circumstances as three primary stressors.

Understanding these struggles has been an essential starting point for supporting workers through the crisis.

“Our employees are facing their own set of tough circumstances, with family members out of work and worries about their jobs,” Carangi says. “It’s a burden on our employees trying to help our members and their own families at the same time.”

Keep everyone in mind

It may be tempting to focus all energy on simply getting through the current crisis. But CUNA Senior Policy Analyst Samira Salem cautions leaders against postponing ongoing initiatives that could benefit members and staff during the pandemic. She cites initiatives related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as highly important right now.

“When there’s a crisis, the most vulnerable tend to be hit the hardest,” says Salem. “Our work to advance DEI is needed now more than ever to help vulnerable members and staff weather the COVID-19 crisis.”

Salem suggests that leaders become aware of pain points for vulnerable populations and offer responsive solutions. For example, people of color are more likely to work in vulnerable industries and to lose their jobs. This makes access to savings and emergency small dollar loans critical.

Continuing to offer financial counseling and debt consolidation assistance also supports vulnerable populations.

COVID-19 communications often have to happen quickly to account for new developments. But this can put vulnerable members at a disadvantage.

“If you have members who are non-English speakers, make sure communications are translated and accessible via multiple channels,” Salem says.

On the staff side, focus on inclusive leadership to boost staff morale. “This means creating a virtual community through regular virtual updates and check-ins where you listen to your staff about how they’re feeling,” says Salem. “Acknowledge their critical role on the front lines, reaffirm your commitment to keeping them safe, and ask what the credit union can do to make sure they have what they need.”

While leaders focus primarily on serving others, they need to practice the same self-care they are likely encouraging employees to do, Salem says.

“Making time to tend to your own physical and emotional needs is important because it allows us—no matter where we are on the organizational chart—to refuel and bring our best and most authentic selves to work.”

This article appeared in the summer issue of Credit Union Magazine. Interested in subscribing? Visit