"The Communicator" could easily be a code name for Teresa Freeborn, president/CEO of El Segundo, Calif.-based Xceed Financial Credit Union.
“As a CEO with a solid marketing and business development background, I consider my ability to communicate effectively as my most powerful strategic weapon,” said Freeborn. “With this honed skill set, I am able to motivate my associates–every single person in the credit union–to move steadfastly forward toward our vision. I like to finish each meeting I have with my team with the question 'What do we need to communicate to everyone?' I subscribe to the mantra ‘Be Kind–No Exceptions’ philosophy. I take care of people, I listen intently, I apologize, I’m honest. And my belief? If you do that, a lot of good things will come your way.”
She added that effective communication doesn’t happen without a lot of hard work and discipline.
“To be successful, everyone at the credit union has to be able to be able to describe what it is we do at the credit union. What’s our purpose and how do we get it done? And further, why is this so good for our members,” said Freeborn.
Like many, Freeborn didn’t set out to work in a credit union, but once she did after graduating from high school, she never looked back. While she worked at the credit union retail level for many years, tackling every position available, an opportunity to work in market research doing consumer studies, product analysis and branch feasibility studies sparked more than just a passing interest.
“The marketing campaigns with their glossy posters and brochures were always fun but deciding a course of action based on thorough research that’s what I enjoyed.”
In fact, it was this love of market research that led her to leave her beloved British Columbia and head south to Southern California. On turning 40, with her MBA and solid operational, accounting, lending, marketing and communications skills under her belt, she determined she wanted to be a CEO. Breaking that glass ceiling in the Canadian credit union system would prove to be a challenge.
“Most of my male colleagues were getting their shot at the big job, but 15 years ago, credit unions in Canada were consolidating like crazy and opportunities were slim,” said Freeborn. “And further, I had built my name and reputation as a marketing’ person–not a finance person, not a lender. To my major disappointment they simply were not hiring marketers as CEOs.”
While working as a senior executive with the then Credit Union Central of British Columbia, Freeborn had earned a pretty solid reputation internationally for championing a very successful cooperative credit union advertising program. It caught the eye of Tom Graham, the then CEO of Hughes Aircraft Credit Union (today Kinecta Federal Credit Union) in Manhattan Beach Calif. And Freeborn was hired to help guide his very large credit union through a significant brand and identity transition. Six years later, she accepted the CEO position of the then Xerox FCU and led it through a similar successful transition to Xceed.
Those interested in nabbing that corner office, Freeborn said to remember that it is not a right.
“There is no shortage of competition for that corner office. So you need to stand out as remarkable and be viewed as indispensible to succeed. And to be seen, heard, and talked about–not to mention desired and respected–amid all of the chaos out there,” said Freeborn.
She also offered some advice.
Plan for your career. Start with your personal brand. Build it steadfastly. Don’t do anything that might compromise your brand.
Be passionate about what you do. Love what you do.
Be a good story teller. Because it’s all about emotion. And emotion is what moves mountains.
Be comfortable with less or imperfect data. There’s no time to assemble everything you’d like to before making a decision. At times you have to trust your instincts, and go with your gut.
Make mistakes and learn from them. Screwing up is the essence of trying a lot of new stuff. Create an environment that encourages trying a lot of new things. You’re going to make mistakes.
Love schmoozing. You either love politics or don’t expect to get anything done because that’s how the world works. Be a networking fiend.
Don’t ever lose sight that leadership equals sales. Period. It’s all sales. All the time. If you don’t love sales, find another life because you’ll never be a successful CEO.
Based on a firm belief in professional development, Xceed provides a $10,000 per year education funding program per associate in addition to budgeting for specific job training across all levels of the organization as needed.
“My preference is to nurture talent throughout the credit union, but I personally focus on my executive team and then to some degree my leadership team–the most senior folks at the credit union. They in turn, focus on their associates,” said Freeborn.
It’s all part of the accessible, approachable, caring culture that has taken some four years to cultivate so that it manifests in everything that happens at Xceed, which Freeborn is most proud of.
Not one for formalities, operating under a policy of no surprises, Freeborn has an open-door policy. She also makes a point to incorporate branch and SEG visits into her schedule along with a monthly podcasts for all associates sharing the latest financials, how Xceed is performing to budget and talking about what’s really important at that time and why. Whenever the markets get a bit rocky, she corresponds with the high-balance depositors, reminding them of how well their credit union is doing and offering to help them and their families solve their financial woes.
“During these times of economic crisis, associates and members need to be reassured on a regular basis. My branch visits and SEG visits are designed to do just that. I hear directly from them and more importantly, I continue to build the relationship. And I hear vital input and feedback that assists me in making future decisions that will affect them,” said Freeborn. “I think leaders today have to be so much more visible. And all other forms of communication have to be stepped up.”
Freeborn and her all female executive team also have a standing weekly meeting. The meeting serves as a forum for difficult questions and challenging one another’s ideas.
“We always have full agendas, and our discussion is always passionate, intense and downright exhausting. But never boring. My team knows everything that is going on at the credit union and holds each other accountable for behaviors conducive to team productivity and success, which means respect for each other’s opinions, no hand-held devices and no interruptions,” said Freeborn. “We argue all the time but about the issues, not personalities. And, it is a very rare occasion that I make a decision that hasn’t been discussed with them with plenty of input from all.”
As for the lack of testosterone on the executive team, Freeborn is looking forward to the day it is as blithely accepted as the numerous all male executive teams that exist worldwide. Given challenges ranging from unemployment, job loss, decline of home values, credit deterioration, consumer confidence and NCUA assessments to earnings pressure, there’s a lot more pressing matters to focus on.
“I’m concerned about the number of credit unions in hunker-down mode,” said Freeborn. “Bleeding off balance sheets to right your capital ratio is a very short-term strategy. Are we considering the future to the degree we should? My opinion, slow and steady loses this race. With the kind of bank sentiment that exists in our marketplace, now is the time to make some noise and ramp up your offerings, not scale them back.”
Five years ago Xceed made a clear statement about being a workplace credit union–one that caters to its SEGs its business partners. Strategies for the next few years are focused on pushing that envelope further in terms of increasing the penetration within its SEGs, developing strategies that speak to the demographics of each SEG, getting really good at measuring the profitability of the SEG business, furthering its personal banker strategy especially to appeal to the women segment, taking its SEG ambassador program to a whole new level, and restructuring its business development resources to accommodate a focus on more relationship management versus business sales.
“There is a lot we can do to help our SEGs on the business services front. Products and services that we did not have in place just a few years ago,” said Freeborn. “We will also be positioning ourselves as the financial institution that ‘brings banking to you’ with some pretty cool technologies such as kiosks in the workplace and a new online banking platform that will wow our members. I am so very passionate about this ‘credit unioning’ thing we do. We do noble work. How many CEOs in other industries can say that? I love the philosophy behind what we do–we solve members’ financial problems in their best interest. That’s pretty powerful stuff.”