Certain milestones get you thinking about the past. In August 2003, when I arrived at the UW Credit Union corporate office in Madison on my first day as CEO, I didn’t know the city, and smartphones were still years away. With no “fastest route” recommendation, I made the rookie mistake of taking Campus Drive on what turned out to be UW-Madison student move-in day. Family vans stuffed to the brim with belongings, confused drivers and excited students jammed the streets. While sitting in traffic, I recognized that my enthusiasm for my new job was just like that of the freshmen moving to campus. Over the years, time has converted those early feelings of excitement into sustained feelings of gratitude.
Lesson One: Everything starts and ends with the board.
Working for a credit union board of directors has been among the best and most challenging parts of my work. In those first months, I remember attending a Filene event where the presenter asked the audience of CEOs which of us wanted to work for a high-performing board. Most every hand went up, but then he persisted: “Listen, I’m honestly asking how many of you really want to work for a high-performing board.” There was some nervous laughter as most of the hands went back down.
I’m grateful for the board and our relationship over the past twenty years. They’ve practiced good governance, set clear goals and asked tough questions. Patricia Smith, the now-retired CEO of Unitus Community Credit Union, was the immediate past chair of the Filene board when I had my turn as chair of that group. I remember her saying that too many new CEOs frame the board relationship in a negative way. “Sooner or later, everyone gets the board they deserve,” she remarked.
As the members of the board that hired me retired from board service one by one, they’ve been followed by capable, accomplished new members. I don’t know if I deserved them, but I’m grateful for the 19 people who have staffed our nine-person board over the past two decades, and I’m grateful for the opportunity they gave me when I looked “too young” for the job – and probably was.
Lesson Two: Put people first.
The past 20 years have served up a generous portion of economic and industry challenges: the Great Recession, housing crises, 0% interest rates, digital competition, the pandemic and inflation, to name a few. When you’re leading through your first economic calamity you think, “Why does this have to happen now?” But with some experience, you realize these challenges predictably come every few years, and you start to see them as opportunities. You come to understand that these economic events are something your members are going through, too, and that frames them differently.
Looking back, our credit union has grown the most during the hardest times. It’s in these periods that people can clearly see what we are about. For example, rather than canceling people’s credit cards, we’ve offered no-interest emergency loans, loan payment relief options and foreclosure prevention resources – really stepping forward into those times to help others. And those are the times in which we’ve shone the most. So, I’m grateful for the challenges, too.
Lesson Three: The past can guide your future.
The connection we have to our past is important, and the connection is strongest when it comes to values that are timeless, like our value to act in the best interest of our members. There have been plenty of uncertain times when we’ve needed to make tough decisions. During those seasons of uncertainty, when information and time were scarce, we let our values point the way, and they have always led us to the right decisions.
Looking back at the fundamental shifts that have occurred during my tenure, one constant has been the need for consumers to be treated fairly. Though I’ve been in my role for 20 years, I’m not the longest-serving top executive of UW Credit Union. Katie R. Wolf led the organization from 1939 to 1964, and while the timelines of our lives overlap by only 21 days, we’ve been connected every day of the past 20 years by the values we’ve inherited from her leadership.
As a commercial enterprise, the credit union has done well, but our superpower has been doing well by doing good. We’ve always focused first on making sure that our services were valuable, helpful and available to the whole community. The metrics that have mattered most to me have always been the number of people we serve and how happy they are with us.
Now in its 92nd year, UW Credit Union is still operating under the same articles of incorporation the state granted us in 1931. I think it says something powerful about your value proposition when you can add market share simply by attracting new members that have heard good things about how you do business. I’m grateful to Katie R. Wolf and the six other UW Credit Union chief executives on whose shoulders we stand.
Lesson Four: Community is key.
Credit unions like ours are steady, local organizations, and it’s important for us to shoulder our share of the leadership and financial support the community needs. From access to education to homeownership to small-dollar credit to financial education, we’re making a generational impact.
For me, that’s a manifestation of our values, and I think it’s a part of our organization’s DNA. These common concerns have brought us together with great organizations and amazing people from across our community and industry. I’m grateful for the inspiration, encouragement, and example of so many top-notch leaders in our community and the credit union movement that I continue to learn from.
Looking back on 20 years, I remain excited about all the ways the credit union has evolved – new services, new talent and enhanced member value. But above all, I’m grateful.