Credit unions can do better than Forbes

Have you seen the list of Forbes’ 100 Most Innovative Leaders published earlier this month? It received quite a bit of attention for one big reason: Of the 100 individuals on the list, 99 were men. 

Prior to publishing the list, Forbes certainly noticed that only 1%– ONE PERCENT!—of their most innovative leaders was female, right? Of course they did. In fact, they were even ready with a response: “Don’t hate the player; hate the game.” 

Okay. Maybe not verbatim… The actual response from Forbes Magazine editor Randall Lane was, “Women, as we all know, are poorly represented at the top of the largest corporations (just 5% of the S&P 500) and fare even worse among growing public tech companies. In other words, for all our carefully calibrated methodology, women never had much of a chance here.” 

The “carefully calibrated methodology,” measured four essential leadership qualities: 

  1. Media reputation for innovation;
  2. Social connections;
  3. Track record for value creation; 
  4. Investor expectations for value creation. 

It is curious that the methodology itself was not questioned. When the results indicated that 50% of the population is responsible for only one percent of great innovation, was nobody left wondering if a built-in bias caused the results? For example, is it possible that a history of creating lists that spotlight men’s contributions at a rate of 99:1 might systemically harm women’s “media reputation for innovation”?

Women never had much of a chance here.

Evidence like this is why- after decades of advancing women, focusing on gender balance, and debating whether there is a glass ceiling or a gender wage gap- women still feel there are obstacles that prevent their full inclusion. It often feels like there is more attention given than progress made.    

It doesn’t have to be this way in credit unions, though. We can do better than Forbes and the Fortune 500 both by building a system where all of our leaders are more likely to succeed.  Here are a few ideas—related to the Forbes-identified “essential leadership qualities”—where credit unions can cultivate inclusive cultures that foster leadership in all: 

1. Media Reputation for Innovation: If you are positioning people in your organization as thought leaders—or if you are responsible for organizing conferences, educational events, or workshops—ensure the voices of women and people of color are well-represented. Look at that agenda one more time: In addition to making sure you have diverse representation, are you selecting women and minorities to speak as subject matter experts that go beyond the topic of being a woman or person of color? If you have the ability to help someone raise their voice as an expert in a key technical area, it may be just what they need to take their next step forward.  

2. Social Connections: When the backlash of the #MeToo movement caused an increased number of men to embrace the Billy Graham rule (or Mike Pence rule, depending how long you have been aware of it), the ease of women gaining access to influential social connections decreased. Women were being excluded from the opportunity to have one-on-one meetings and mentorship with men, and sometimes even to travel for work. If you are in a leadership position, consciously seek out opportunities to connect directly with someone who has a different background from you. In-group promotion (helping those like you) is something humans do naturally. Being a resource to someone who does not have the same access to your network can offer an important boost.

3. Track Record for Innovation: Many credit unions say they want more diversity in their leadership, but they want to be clear: “We value diversity, but we don’t set quotas. We are committed to hiring the best candidate in the pool.” The best is often defined as the most experienced, and the most experienced is usually someone who already found an open door. Is it worth taking a risk to tap into potential over past performance? While it may be a difficult choice to hire or promote someone without a track record, there are ways to help high-potential employees gain experience. For example, build project teams with an intentional focus on increasing the diversity of team members and you may create a win-win: Your employee gains experience and a track record and the organization tests a not-yet-proven executive when the stakes aren’t as high.

4. Investor Expectations for Value Creation: I have to admit that this was a tough one to translate directly to the credit union space. After mulling it over a bit, I decided the closest metric to measure might be member growth: More people joining a credit union seems like a good indicator of the expectation of value. How does this translate to the Forbes leadership qualities and removing barriers? Maybe this: Investor expectations are shaped by the promise of a brand, of a new product, of the leadership behind it. Investors develop these expectations based on a combination of facts and feelings, but it all comes down to the story they believe. Is an inclusive culture part of your credit union’s story? Do you demonstrate to your future members that they belong at an organization led by people who look like them and share a similar frame of reference? Crafting a story—and an organization—that welcomes all will grow your membership. Make sure you include all the right voices in that story. 

There may never be a list of the 100 Most Innovative People in Credit Unions. If there is, an inclusive credit union system will ensure that list represents our commitment to the whole communities we serve. 

It matters that we build this together.

Jill Nowacki

Jill Nowacki

Jill Nowacki started her career with credit unions in 2001. She has taken on leadership roles at credit unions and state and national trade associations. Now, she uses her experience ... Web: Details