A Shared Branching Advocate and Leader

Q&A with Wegner Award-winner Sarah Canepa Bang.

January 28, 2014

In recognition of her leadership and tireless commitment to the credit union philosophy, the National Credit Union Foundation is presenting Sarah Canepa Bang with a 2014 Herb Wegner Memorial Award for Individual Achievement.

Bang is president of CO-OP Shared Branching–FSCC and chief strategy officer for CO-OP Shared Branching.

Credit Union Magazine recently chatted with Bang about the award and her career.

CU Mag: What does the Wegner Award mean to you?

Bang: Winning the award with his name on it means the world to me.

When I started at CUNA 30 years ago, the very first credit union leader I heard about was Herb Wegner. Not Filene, not Bergengren, not Raiffeisen.

He was a modern day pioneer of the credit union movement. It was his courage that helped him accomplish so much.

He didn’t take the expedient or easy way out of anything and advanced the credit union movement as a result.

His courage in innovation is inspiring. I really hope I can live up to this honor.

CU Mag: What are you most proud of in your credit union career?

Far and away, it is being a part of making the quaint, and often ignored, concept of credit union shared branching into the best competitive advantage we have over the banks today.

It’s the one delivery channel no bank will ever have, or frankly, understand. Credit unions did this for the sake of members, not profits.

When is the last time we ever saw the banking industry do something decent and good for the sole purpose of making consumers’ lives easier?

The fact that credit unions were able to build a network of over 7,200 physical access points through cooperation is astounding. I am proud of being part of the cooperation—not brute force or piles of cash—but the real work of cooperation that made that possible. What a story!

CU Mag: What was the most challenging issue you've dealt with during your CU career? 

Bang: Probably the most challenging issue has been watching as credit union leaders, with all the right intentions, get swept away by the financial crisis.

Almost every time the economy claimed a new victim, I thought to myself, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

I am constantly asking myself what I learned and hoping the lesson sticks. Watching that happen over and over has a chilling effect on innovation and bold growth. 

Overcoming this heightened fear of taking calculated risks has been the hardest personal obstacle I’ve ever faced. I know I am not alone in facing that challenge.

CU Mag: What’s your best leadership idea/advice?

Bang: This is a two-part answer.

First, hire people who are smarter than you are and then trust them. This is so easy to say, but so hard to do.

If you’re willing to acknowledge that as the ‘boss’ you might not be right all the time, it gets easier.

When building a complicated program, product, or process, be very careful of HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). Make sure you know who may have a difference of opinion and why.

How many times have we heard someone within an organization say, “I could have told you this wouldn’t work,” when describing a failure. You want to hear from that person beforehand.

Second, if the project, product, process is successful, give credit to the team/people who made it happen. It’s the right thing to do, and your team will notice this and walk through fire for you in the future.

If it fails, take responsibility. In other words, ‘the buck really does stop here.’

Back in the ‘olden days,’ when we were first starting the 24-hour lending center at the Oregon League, I had a team member ask me, “What if this doesn’t work?” I could literally see the whites around her eyes; she was so worried.

I told her, “This will work, and when it does it will be because everyone did their best building it. If it doesn’t work, it’s my fault. Period.”