When she couldn’t figure out a way to make a living in theater, Lourdes Cortez, knew pretty early on she wanted to be able to make a difference in people’s lives.
“Although I knew I loved to speak to people, I realized as I was growing up my younger dreams of breaking into show business wouldn’t be easy since at the time you really needed connections,” said Cortez, who is president/CEO of North Jersey Federal Credit Union in Totowa, N.J. “So I started look at other career opportunities. I was a teller, but I was interested in other aspects of the business. I started to aspire to be a part of the executive team, someday, but at the time I never thought I’d get to where I am today.”
Cortez started working at the credit union in the early 1980s to put herself through school. She started as a teller and worked in every department, gaining familiarity and experience with the nuts and bolts of running a credit union. She credits many mentors along the way who not only encouraged her to continue her education but took her under their wing helping her recognize, build and further develop skill sets in her leadership toolbox.
“My former CEO was kind of molding me, and I didn’t even realize it until the last eight years of the 15 years I had been here,” said Cortez. “At that time he sat me down said here are your strengths, weaknesses and most importantly your potential. That he saw something in me early on, I left his office that day all pumped up and said to myself I’m going to make this happen.”
The experience and her longtime drive to always give back has shaped her approach not only in how North Jersey can better serve the community but also internally as far as truly empowering employees. A big believer in paying it forward, Cortez has been a staunch supporter of both the personal and professional development of staff.
“Bottom line to run a successful operation you need to nurture, train and motivate all staff along with your executive team,” said Cortez. “One of the challenges when promoted through the ranks that you have to learn is that the skill set that got you to the C-level is not the same that is going to keep you there. Once you are part of the C-level, your focus has to be more strategic. You can’t get involved in the minutia and people tend to have a hard time letting things go. Surround yourself with the best. I really firmly believe in that. Surround yourself with people who know more than you.”
She highly recommended the book What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith for those who have been recently promoted to their leadership roles.
“It was a great resource for me, thought-provoking and just takes you through the process of being strategic. When you’re CEO, the focus can no longer be what it was when you were manager or vice president because you have to always look ahead and plan the moves that will get your credit union to the next level,” said Cortez.
“Look, I know I can’t do this on my own and that I’m only as good as our employees. In addition to helping members make their dreams come true, seeing how our employees grow and aspire to do more and be promoted within the credit union, to me that is so rewarding. To see that we have helped put them through college, furthered their education and helped deepen their career path with the credit union is one of the things that we’re proud of here. If they have a high school diploma and can’t afford to continue their education then we’ll pay for it.”
She added that having complete confidence in her executive team has enabled her to shift the $198 million credit union’s strategic initiatives into overdrive. She advised making time to talk to staff as you never know where a great idea will come from. She said in fact tellers and member service representatives have come up with many solid ideas to help the credit union better serve members and improve processes.
“Communication is essential and my leadership style is more democratic as I want that input,” said Cortez. “Ultimately, I’m the decision maker as far as recommending the final decision to the board, but I’ve learned that listening, really hearing what people have to share is vital. Once a leader stops listening and learning from the team and members, that’s when they cease to be a good leader. Every day I learn something new whether it’s a new way of dieting, cooking a dish or it’s about one of our products and service or one of our employees. I just learned one of our employees does stand-up comedy. Every day I make a point to look around, learn something new. The moment you think you’ve learned it all, then you’ve stopped being effective.”
Given the challenges presented by the economy, real estate lending drying up with housing prices dropping and homes not appraising as high as they were a few years ago, she said it’s never been as important to innovate. With so many consumer pain points, the solutions that address them are what will help credit unions stand out from the competition. North Jersey FCU has been working on creative ways to still serve members who want to buy a home during these trying times.
“We’re very lucky here to have such an open-minded, compassionate executive team, staff and board who aren’t afraid to think creatively and out of the box,” said Cortez.
For women stepping into the C-suite Cortez’ advice boiled down to confidence.
“Even in the credit union industry, which is better than traditional banks, even though qualified female executives step up to the next level, a good 75% still feel intimidated or that they aren’t qualified enough,” said Cortez. “My advice is learn as much as you can, learn people skills, network, build relationships, and it may sound redundant but as women we’ve got to believe in ourselves more. Push out those doubting voices. For me, I realized it was time to believe in myself after that pep talk with my former CEO, because if someone else could see it in me then I needed to be able to see it in myself.”