Whether you’re a young professional or a seasoned executive, navigating a career path is an ongoing journey. Lessons are learned, experiences are gained, promotions are earned, and mistakes are made. Be grateful for those mistakes, because they make us wiser and prompt us to evaluate situations differently down the road.
Instead of wondering about when your big mistake will come creeping around the corner and knock you off your feet, reassure yourself that there isn’t a CEO alive who hasn’t made mistakes. And the honest ones will tell you that they’ve made plenty, and some of them are real doozies.
As I was preparing to write this article, I talked with four credit union CEOs who were willing to share their mistakes as well as what they learned from them. These are actual CEOs from real credit unions. I opted to keep names and credit unions out of the story and instead focus on the lesson.
Mistake #1: Being held hostage by an employee for too long
This CEO had a loan service representative on his team who was great at her job and well-liked by many members. Unfortunately, she was a completely different person behind the scenes. She was the cause of much drama, created divisiveness among the staff, and in her spare time, she was constantly stirring the proverbial *#@& pot. This toxic employee worked at the credit union for several years and eventually found another job. It wasn’t until she quit that the CEO (and the staff) recognized exactly how much she single-handedly diminished the morale. The CEO had considered firing this employee, but the VP of Lending knew that the workflow would defer to him, and he would have to explain to members why she was gone. And they weren’t sure what kind of “bad-mouthing” she would do in the community. So, he convinced the CEO that it wasn’t that bad, and things would work themselves out. Against the CEO’s better judgment, that employee absolutely overstayed her welcome. After her departure, the office atmosphere became lighter and happier than it had been in a long time, and the CEO regretted not taking action sooner.
Mistake #2: Lacking specificity during performance evaluations
This CEO was admittedly unprepared for employee evaluations. He recognizes this now, years later, from when he conducted his first employee performance review. He would meet with his employees individually and offer feedback along the lines of “You’re doing a good job,” or “You’re not doing very well” throughout the evaluation. He thought he was providing good guidance to his employees.
Until one employee called him out on it.
The CEO claimed that she wasn’t doing a very good job. And when she asked for specifics, he had none. It was a general observation he told her. But she again called him out and told him that if he was going to make that statement, he should have examples or situations to back it up.
After careful consideration, he realized she was right.
That experience many years ago was a big mistake on the CEO’s part. He was empathetic to his employee, who wanted to know specifically what she needed to improve.
So, he changed his process. He now makes a conscious effort to jot down notes of specific instances, both good and bad, for employee files throughout the year. It takes time and effort, but he understands that these long-term observations throughout the year really provide an accurate assessment of the employee’s performance.
Mistake #3: Not monetizing your expectations
This CEO did a lot of things right, but one of her mistakes was learned later in her career. She learned that when you monetize the expectations, you can position yourself for better results.
For example, she had an employee that always seemed to be late with projects and regularly missed deadlines. This behavior was addressed, but to no avail. So, the CEO decided a new approach was necessary. She tied the deadlines to a monetary bonus. And all of a sudden, the deadlines were met, and the projects were complete.
In another instance, the credit union was negotiating the contract with their core processor, who made many promises about upcoming technology and developments on their platform. Although they got it all in writing (like Judge Judy says!) many of the bells and whistles never came to fruition. What she learned was that she should have tied a monetary discount/adjustment to the launch of those new bells and whistles that were promised.
Mistake#4: No CEO Succession Plan
This CEO has worked at her credit union for 15 years and was preparing for retirement. She was very transparent with her board about her plans and encouraged them to begin a transition strategy several years ago. But they were resistant to creating a succession plan. They dragged their feet, didn’t know where to start, shifted the burden back on her, and eventually, the clock ran out.
So now, nearly three years after she announced her retirement to the board, she’ll be leaving, and the credit union is merging.
This is a common mistake among many credit unions, but specifically the smaller ones.
She has told me that if there’s one thing she could get a “do over” on during her time at the credit union, it would be to push the board harder for a succession plan.
Without mistakes, we would never learn and grow into wiser, stronger, better people. Screwing up feels crappy in the moment. Believe me, I know. I’ve had my share of mistakes over the years. But the lessons learned were invaluable. Don’t focus on the errors and beat yourself up for past mistakes. Look forward to the changes, because knowing that you can do it better the next time is very empowering and will result in stronger leadership skills.