“The path to the corner offices doesn’t go through the marketing departments of credit unions. Never has and never will.”
Exactly five years ago, that was a comment left on an article penned by Ron Shevlin. This commenter went on to say:
“There is indeed a cadre of outspoken young people on the blogosphere and around the watercooler, but from what I’ve observed, they are more junior level people from credit union marketing and training departments, and the numerous marketing agencies that want to sell them stuff. They are indeed a rah-rah bunch, but they aren’t leading their organizations now, nor will they be leading them in the future.”
Has this prediction come true? Based on some of the recent C suite appointments, I would argue it turned out to be rubbish. Need some proof? How about the CEO appointments of Jill Nowacki at the Credit Union League of Connecticut, Jason Lindstrom of Evergreen Credit Union, and, most recently, Caroline Willard as CEO of the new Cornerstone Credit Union League? All three held marketing positions before being appointed CEO. If you think this is something recent, it’s not. Before leading one of the fastest growing credit unions in the country, Teresa Freeborn came from the marketing ranks.
With the recent promotions from marketing to CEO, it begs the question… can a marketer be a good CEO? I asked Bridget O’Rourke, Executive Director of O’Rourke & Associates, for some insight. “Each CEO vacancy involves an organization with a unique set of circumstances and the desired CEO profile will be influenced by the strategic needs defined by the board. For example, an association facing a business model more reliant on building for-profit income streams might look to a relationship builder who has driven revenue in past positions. A credit union, operating in a competitive market, may look for a seasoned credit union executive with an ‘influencer profile’ to leverage community relationships to keep the organization viable and vibrant. On the other hand, if there are asset quality concerns or the situation requires a financial turnaround, the board will probably lean toward more functional expertise when setting the desired CEO profile. In my experience, marketing executives can enjoy a path to senior leadership, especially if they get exposure across other functional areas in the organization.”
Lisa Burroughs, a former marketing executive who held a C-level position with the League of Southeastern Credit Unions before joining the O’Rourke team recently, had some great advice for marketers who aspire to grow in their careers: “In order to advance to the highest levels within the credit union industry, marketers and practitioners from other specialty areas (Retail, Lending, Finance, etc.) need to challenge themselves to learn everything about every area of the business and gain experience within those areas as much as possible. It has been my experience that this is not going to happen within the normal course of business, so individuals must set a specific plan for how they will get experience in those areas and then enlist sponsors to help them with this. When I was VP of Marketing at a large credit union with aspirations to move on to a CEO role, I realized that I was in charge of my own learning so each month I would make an appointment with our CFO and review the financials in detail until I got to the point that I knew them inside and out. I actively participated on ALCO taking on roles that were well beyond the normal realm of Marketing. When I got my MBA, I focused my concentration in Accounting and Finance and did an independent study project in which I developed an open book training program for the staff of the credit union to help them understand the financials. I did similar shadowing with all of the other operational areas of the credit union. So when I sat down with the Board of Directors at the credit union at which I eventually became CEO, I had concrete examples of success and could demonstrate an in depth knowledge of all areas within the credit union.”
I would echo Shevlin’s last comment to the naysayer in his article from 2012: “I hope you’re still around credit unions for the next 30 years for these young CU leaders to prove you wrong.” Though it looks like Shevlin was wrong too. It didn’t take 30 years; it’s taken less than five years for some of the brightest marketing minds in the industry to grow into successful CEOs.