From part-time employee to key executive: Advice from an African American leader

Building a diverse credit union environment is essential for enhancing operational effectiveness and fulfilling the mission of serving all members equitably—embodying the “People Helping People” philosophy. That diverse environment is only possible when we create paths for people who reflect our communities to advance their careers. As a young African American woman, I started my career in credit unions in a part-time role. At that time, I noticed the disparity in minority representation in executive roles and it was hard to picture myself becoming an executive.

However, as I interacted with members—specifically with minority members—and witnessed the positive impact of my assistance in their financial journeys, my passion for the credit union’s “People Helping People” deepened. These interactions fueled my determination to create opportunities for myself and others like me. I realized that my role was not just about transactions; it was about building trust, fostering financial empowerment, and advocating for equitable access to resources. With each interaction, I saw the potential to make a difference, not only for individuals but also for the broader community. This sense of purpose became my driving force, propelling me to continually seek growth, develop my skills, and actively pursue advancement within the organization. While the lack of representation in leadership roles remains a challenge, I am committed to forging my path, leveraging my unique perspectives, and advocating for diversity, equality, and inclusion every step of the way.

Today, I am confident about the career I have built. I served for decades as an executive at one of the country’s leading credit unions. Then, I made a career pivot and now I use what I have learned to help others build their careers as Director of Recruiting Services at Humanidei.

Here are five action items you can take from my story to help pave your way to the C-Suite:

1. Embrace continuous learning and professional development

Seek formal educational opportunities:

  • Advanced education: Pursue advanced education and specialized training. Western CUNA Management School (WCMS) offers comprehensive courses covering key areas such as financial management, strategic planning, and operations, tailored specifically for the credit union industry. My participation in this program gave me expanded knowledge of how the credit union works and how it fits into the broader industry. This was critical as I moved from a functional leader to an organizational leader. CUES’ CEO Institute and Humanidei’s Humanedge program are also designed to provide unique learning for aspiring credit union executives. Programs like the National Credit Union Foundation’s Development Educator (DE) Program can help participants develop a deeper connection to the credit union ethos, equipping them with the skills to drive social change within their communities.

Stay updated:

  • Industry conferences: Attending industry conferences is critical to expanding your understanding of the system. These events, hosted by national, state, and issue-specific trade associations provide insights into current trends, regulatory changes, and innovations in the credit union space and offer opportunities for networking and professional development. If you have limited access to professional development dollars, online events such as CUInsight’s Mini Con events can get you started or you may find scholarships available from your state League or the Filene Research Institute’s Crash programs for young professionals.
  • Professional literature: Industry publications, newsletters, and journals are great ways to stay informed about the latest news and developments in the credit union sector. Carve out time every day to read about what is happening in the industry.

2. Build a strong professional network

Mentorship and sponsorship:

  • Internal and external mentors: Identify mentors within your organization who have experience and are willing to share their knowledge. Additionally, seek external mentors who can provide diverse perspectives and broader industry insights. Both types of mentors are important for comprehensive professional growth.
  • Active sponsorship: Engage with senior leaders who can function as sponsors. Sponsors mentor and advocate for your career advancement, helping you gain visibility and access to higher-level opportunities. The difference between a mentor and a sponsor may be simply defined as a mentor speaking to or with you … a sponsor also speaks about you (favorably and when you are not in the room).

Engage in networking:

  • Industry events: Participate in industry events, seminars, and workshops. These events are excellent platforms for meeting peers, learning from industry leaders, and staying current with industry trends.
  • Professional organizations: Join professional organizations related to the credit union industry. These organizations often host valuable events, webinars, and forums where you can connect with peers and leaders, share experiences, and gain new insights. At Humanidei, we are actively engaged with the African American Credit Union Coalition (AACUC), the National Association of Latino Credit Unions and Professionals (NLCUP), and the Global Women’s Leadership Network
  • After-hours events: Engage in after-hours networking events to build personal and professional relationships. These informal settings allow you to connect more deeply with colleagues and industry professionals, enhancing your network and visibility. 

3. Enhance visibility and personal branding

Take initiative:

  • High-visibility projects: Volunteer for projects and roles that are high-profile within your credit union. This demonstrates your initiative, skills, and commitment to the organization, making you more visible to senior management.
  • Leadership roles: Seek out leadership roles in various committees or task forces. This not only highlights your leadership abilities but also provides valuable experience and exposure.

Promote your achievements:

  • Share accomplishments: Regularly communicate your successes and contributions to your superiors and colleagues. Highlighting your achievements helps build your professional reputation. Keep track of your accomplishments throughout the year so when it comes time to speak about your performance you do not forget about what you did 3, 6, or 9 months ago.
  • Use social media: Leverage professional platforms like LinkedIn to share your career milestones, thought leadership, and industry insights. This enhances your brand and makes you more visible to a wider audience. Ensure that the messages you put on social media are consistent with how you want to be perceived as a professional and a human. Authenticity matters!

4. Develop key skills and competencies

Leadership skills:

  • Strategic thinking: Focus on developing the ability to think strategically, considering long-term goals and the broader impact of decisions. Engage in training programs and workshops that enhance strategic planning and leadership skills.
  • Decision-making and people management: Strengthen decision-making capabilities and people management skills. Consider participating in leadership development programs offered by organizations like Humanidei, which provide Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Leadership Circles and Executive coaching tailored to developing these competencies.

Financial acumen:

  • Understanding financials: Gain a deep understanding of credit union financials, including balance sheets, income statements, and cash flow management. This knowledge is critical for making informed strategic decisions. Scheduling time to meet with financial leaders in your organization, asking to observe ALCO meetings, or registering for an “Understanding Financials” boot camp could help provide education on financial reporting at your credit union.
  • Compliance and operations: Develop an understanding of the operational aspects of running a credit union. This includes knowledge of regulatory requirements, risk management, and member services.

5. Cultivate a supportive work-life balance


  • Career goals and progress: Regularly reflect on your career goals, progress, and areas for improvement. Setting aside time for self-assessment helps you stay focused on your long-term objectives and identify any necessary adjustments to your career path. As a credit union professional, I recognize that life’s challenges can sometimes derail us. When this happens, it is important to reconnect and refocus on the bigger picture of our goals and aspirations. I recently facilitated a “Defining Your Why” workshop and witnessed the value of this in real life. One participant contacted me after to share that identifying and reconnecting with her core values reignited her commitment to the credit union philosophy of “People Helping People.” Taking the time to self-reflect can remind you why you chose this career in the first place. 

6. Mental health and well-being:

  • Prioritize well-being: Maintain a healthy work-life balance by prioritizing your mental health and well-being. This includes setting boundaries, practicing self-care, and seeking support when needed.

Following these strategies assisted me throughout my career journey. It is not always easy, and you will encounter challenges along the way. I encourage you to focus on your goals, celebrate your wins, and view challenges as opportunities for career growth. Minority women in the credit union industry can continue to effectively navigate their career paths and achieve executive roles.

For those seeking assistance, reach out to your friends at Humanidei. We support credit unions in creating diverse environments through DEI programs, Executive Coaching, and other Leadership Development programs. These efforts facilitate career advancement and promote an inclusive workplace culture. We look forward to celebrating your success!


Contact Humanidei

Contact Humanidei

Sonya Watkins

Sonya Watkins

With 28 years in the credit union industry, Sonya Watkins excels at creating a trustful and diverse atmosphere. Renowned for her integrity, work ethic, and leadership, she served as Vice ... Web: Details