This month marks the end of my thirteenth year with credit unions, and the end of my first year as a CEO. I have been deeply blessed to build a career in an industry that I stumbled upon accidentally and where I have grown immensely. It has been an honor to occasionally make an impact, and to frequently be impacted by a community with a strong purpose, incredible people, and eye-opening lessons. I know that the years ahead will bring additional growth—and I look forward to experiencing that—but for today, here is a look back at three of the most important lessons I’ve learned. If you are one of the future leaders who will guide our industry into its next generation of leadership, I hope you will gain something from these lessons, too.
You Have a Role in the Success of Others
In a meeting several years back, a colleague advised that employees really only need to worry about how they treat co-workers in lower pay grades. He said as you move up the ladder it becomes important not to abuse those beneath you. This is not good advice. At any point in your career, you have the opportunity- and it is always important- to contribute to the success of others, regardless of your organizational relationship. The time for treating colleagues well does not come after you climb the ladder.
There is no point in a career when supportive colleagues become meaningless, but the expression “it’s lonely at the top” originated somewhere. Likely, it stems from this widely held perception that beyond a certain box on the org chart people lose the need for support. The reality is that no promotion is accompanied by an impenetrable layer of shellac: People- even leaders- are vulnerable. We all benefit from being surrounded by those interested in our success. In the words of Napoleon Hill, one can succeed best and quickest by helping others succeed. Concerning yourself with the well-being of others (regardless of whether they are above, below, or at your pay grade) will open doors. Wherever those opportunities take you, surround yourself with those you want to support, who will support you back.
Know What Is Non-Negotiable
You will work with a number of stakeholders who hold strong, divergent opinions about how to fulfill your mission. It is absolutely critical to listen to those viewpoints and be flexible in developing solutions while recognizing it is not possible to always please every stakeholder. A relentless commitment to purpose and a willingness to compromise on the method (but never the goal) are important. Identify early on those goals that will support achieving the mission, then be uncompromising in your pursuit of excellence.
When it comes time to make difficult decisions, this clarity around that which is non-negotiable provides a framework for forging a path forward. In my case, I have come to realize that strong financial stewardship and a commitment to building a team culture of accountability and trust are two critical areas of focus that will lead to maximized value for credit unions. While having a clearly defined framework in place does not guarantee all decisions will be widely popular, it does make it easier to have difficult conversations about those decisions.
The Industry Needs You More Than You Need It
It is hard to work for a purpose that you really love. A job does not love you back. It will never think about you as much as you think about it.
People who are passionate about what they are doing may be scared. Every. Single. Day. When I first started working, I thought this was something I would outgrow. Then, a legendary credit union CEO shared with me part of his success stemmed from the fact that he spent every day in fear. These were the words of a man who was highly secure in his career and his legacy. His fear was not of losing his job, it was of not doing enough. Fear is difficult to live with, but it is the reality of finding a calling rather than having a job. When you are answering a call, your time is not your own. You will obsess over what more you can do, where you are falling short, who you have disappointed, and what will ultimately lead to the accomplishment of your vision.
I was struggling with the weight of this when a friend shared something with me that is true for anyone working at something they truly love: This industry needs you more than you need it. If this ever stops being true– if you are no longer relentlessly pursuing a vision of excellence that will be game changing— consider looking for a different opportunity because while it is hard to work in a job you love this much, can you imagine the alternative?