How do I become a CEO – And should I really want the job?

Loren, the young college-bound son of a Michigan Credit Union CEO, recently contacted me with this question: “Over the years, my mother passed down to me her love and passion for the credit union industry, so my primary goal is to become a CEO like her, allowing me to make an impact on the lives of the employees, as well as the members of the credit union. So, how can you advise me on what I need to do to become a credit union CEO?”

He went on to explain that when he was very young, his mother would bring him to the credit union while she worked. Color book in hand, he observed his mom and how she interacted with employees and worked on projects designed to help people get access to affordable financial services. He said, “I became 100 percent confident that I wanted to manage a credit union one day, just like my mother.”

What an impressive and confident aspiration that Loren expressed. I was also moved by this example of unintentional mentoring and inspiration that was so remarkably impressed upon him by his mother.

My ongoing exchanges with Loren helped me realize once again how much I sometimes take for granted the tremendous opportunity that I have been given to work as a leader in the credit union industry. I’ve always told people that it’s much harder to get a CEO job (or other top management job), than it is to actually do the job. What I mean by that is, as leaders, we must be humble enough to realize that many others, both inside and outside the organization, could do our job as well as, or better than, we do it. But for whatever reason, trust was placed in us to lead, so we should motivate ourselves at every stage of our stewardship.

As to whether it’s a job worth having, I tell this to Loren and others who ask that question: credit unions and their support organizations need strong, passionate and principled leaders. If someone aspires to that role, there are likely few careers that are as satisfying and impactful.

On the specific question of how to prepare for the job, the answer is a bit more tough. I told Loren that one of two paths made the most sense in my opinion. First, he could get an accounting degree, go work for a public accounting firm, then springboard to a finance or CFO role at a client credit union — or use that experience to hire on into the financial management role at a non-client credit union.

A second path would be to get as much education as possible while building up operational experience at a credit union. I told him to assess his skills and passions. If he is right-brained and creative, he should pursue a marketing or communications degree, perhaps with an MBA, while working at a credit union. If he is left-brain dominant and analytical, a finance or accounting degree and MBA might channel him through the finance channel of a credit union.

I also told him to read Daniel Pink’s book, “A Whole New Mind.” The book helps remind us that what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. The world is becoming increasingly automated. Developing the skills that help manage digital strategies, artificial intelligence, cyber security risks and nimble technology that improves the member experience are all talents that could springboard one into an impactful leadership role.

Then there’s the question of what CEOs actually do. Well, that varies widely from small organizations to large ones and is based upon unique leadership styles. But, the Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) June/July 2018 edition recently summarized how CEOs spend their time, and which functions are most critical.

According to HBR, here are the seven common realities associated with the CEO job. While this summary applies to large corporate CEOs, I’ve added my perspectives on credit union leadership as well.


CEOs are always on, and there is always more to be done. In the HBR survey, top leaders work an average of 10 hours per weekday. They also conducted business on 79 percent of weekend days and on 70 percent of vacation days. Altogether, the CEOs in the study worked an average of 62 hours a week.

From my own experience as CEO of the Michigan Credit Union League and CU Solutions Group, and observing CEOs of larger and smaller credit unions, the CEO role is all consuming. Most leaders I know are glued to their phones checking and sending emails, taking calls and thinking about the next week or next month’s management meetings.

Travel is another element. Industry conferences, core processor user meetings, peer collaboration sessions, visits to branches and CUSO operations and other unique time demands all stack up.

The CEO’s job is mentally and physically demanding. Those who survive the rigors of the job must find time for family, hobbies, reading, health, fitness and rest. But if one thrives on the intensity of a role like this and can sustain it, being a CEO or senior manager in a credit union can be an incredibly fulfilling and impactful career.


For larger company CEO roles, the HBR study showed that the top job primarily involves face-to-face interactions, which took up 61 percent of work time. Another 15 percent was spent on the phone or reading and replying to written correspondence. The final 24 percent was spent on electronic communications.

There are numerous examples of how the Credit Union CEO’s face-to-face interactions are their most valuable interactions. One of the greatest challenges for today’s leaders is to avoid the lure of email and the myth that productivity means a clean email inbox.

In my own experience, and in my perception of credit union CEOs, the most effective leaders consciously pull themselves out of their corner offices to interact with staff, attend meetings, make presentations to new employees, provide one-on-one mentoring, get out in their communities, network with their peers and learn from interactions with their competitors.

At the CEO level, most operational emails are for keeping up with what’s happening as opposed to garnering the CEO’s response or involvement. To do otherwise pulls the CEO into the operational weeds and oftentimes stifles the empowerment of other senior staff. Of course, this varies based on the size of the credit union. In smaller credit unions, the CEO is involved in just about every facet of the operation and is often challenged to find time for strategic thinking and external stakeholder relations.


Leadership styles vary greatly in this area, but according to HBR, an explicit and well-defined agenda for the day, the month, the quarter and the year is one of the CEO’s most important tools for making progress on multiple priorities.

Properly allocating time for the advancement of the agenda is also critical.  The HBR study showed that about a third of a CEO’s time is spent in a reactive mode, handling unfolding issues both internal and external. By contrast, a small amount of time — only 11 percent on average — focused on routine activities like review meetings, board meetings and “have-to-do” activities like meeting with new employees, branch grand openings and other such “ritual” activities.

For credit union leaders and other successful businesses, the CEO who gets overly hamstrung by routine meetings, operational crises and symbolic events, will find it difficult to plan, strategize and shape the credit union’s direction while driving vision adoption throughout the organization.

Again, for smaller credit unions, the reason it is so difficult for them to be visionary and reinventive is that the CEO and other leaders are compelled to be more operational than strategic. Small credit unions should find ways to allocate enough staff resources to help the CEO find the bare minimum strategic time to lead the credit union forward.


The more complex a company or credit union becomes, the more important its reliance on skilled senior management. The HBR study found that about half of the CEO’s time with internal constituencies was spent with one or more direct reports, and 21 percent of it was spent only with direct reports.

Many credit unions hold at least monthly, hour-long coaching meetings with all direct reports, and the spontaneous “touch base” time is especially important. The organizational structure and the number of direct reports for the CEO then becomes a crucial consideration as each of these relationships needs to be coordinated and managed.

In larger credit unions, the CEO should also find time to interact at least quarterly or even monthly with other managers who report up to direct reports. This face-to-face time is another example of how the leader can share perspective, shape vision and achieve buy-in with all key leaders. Finding time for these interactions requires good communication and discernment skills that are unique for a good CEO.

Scheduling at least a minimal time for one-on-one, touch-base meetings with the rank and file of the organization is also important. This year, after realizing that I was losing touch with many of my 150 employees, I initiated short, 10-minute touch-base meetings with all staff, just to ask them how they’re doing and how the CEO might help them with their success. I learn a lot about individual interests and hobbies through random questions that also help me understand organizational and operational needs.


This leadership trait has to do with the activities that leverage the CEO’s time. In the HBR study, strategy development accounts for 21 percent of their time on average, 25 percent is spent on functional and business unit reviews, developing people and relationships accounts for 25 percent, matching organizational structure and culture with the business is 16 percent and acquisitions is 4 percent on average.

For credit union leaders, finding this kind of balance is next to impossible for smaller shops. But for more complex credit unions, the right mix of time spent on strategy, business reviews, people development and structure becomes a very important part of the CEO’s role.

At CUSG, our guideposts are Vision, Process, Results and People. I ask all leadership to bring these into departmental and coaching meetings to make sure that everyone understands the need for continuous improvement in all of these areas.


The HBR study showed that the average corporate CEO spends 72 percent of their time in meetings for an average of 37 meetings of assorted length each week.

For CEOs, it becomes a huge challenge to decide which meetings are vitally important for the CEO, with what frequency and duration to attend, and how to say no to unnecessary meetings while still being accessible.

Amid all that juggling, good CEOs also must make time for accessibility and spontaneity to shift to the unexpected, important issues that arise. In the HBR study, CEOs initiate more than half of their meetings themselves versus having someone else schedule them.

Finally, scheduling to allow for “alone time” is also important. Leaders who fail to schedule meaningful time for strategy development, planning and agenda refinement are destined to fall in the trap of handling emails and routine tasks that are better delegated to others.


For larger companies, 70 percent of a CEOs time is focused internally, while 30 percent is spent with outside suppliers, business partners, board meetings, community involvement and the like.

Again, for credit unions, smaller credit unions have less of a luxury to spend time outside the credit union. But for most mid-size and larger shops, CEOs and some of the senior staff need to allocate the necessary time for external constituencies like CUSOs, business partners, peer networking, merger opportunities and advisors. Networking can bring ideas and insights that dramatically impact the credit union positively and guards against overly insular thinking.

For anyone like Loren looking to become a CEO or senior leader, understanding the role is an important first step. Once the training and preparation are done and the job secured, every leader manages time and priorities according to their own unique management style. But the Harvard Business Review study in the July/August 2018 edition can shed light on how effective CEOs allocate their precious time in support of their teams.

CU Solutions Group is a company that helps credit unions with technology, marketing and HR performance solutions as well as strategic advisory services. In all cases, these services are intended to help achieve greater organizational performance for the CEO and the entire credit union. Products like Planning Pro, Performance Pro and Governease are all intended to help the CEO, board and senior team members leverage their time so that they and their credit union can be more effective.

Dave Adams

Dave Adams

Dave Adams is  President / Chief Executive Officer of CU Solutions Group. The  CUSG office is located in Livonia, Michigan. Mr. Adams joined the Michigan Credit Union League in August of ... Web: Details