When it comes to challenges, having a hard time saying no has made all the difference in Kerry Parker’s life.
“I can sit there and complain about the economy and regulations, but the greatest challenge is trying to make sure we’re on the right path for the membership,” said Parker, who is president/CEO of the $880 million, Austin, Texas-based A+ Federal Credit Union. “We have a hard time saying no and always try to find other approaches or solutions for a way to educate and rise to meet members’ expectations.”
Until she and her husband had twins, Parker had dreams of being a partner in a big eight CPA firm. It wasn’t a family-friendly environment, so she got her start at a credit union and has never looked back.
As a big believer in learning and education, Parker said the ability to help individuals and the community improve, grow and develop has been a driving force behind most initiatives. She added that constant communication with staff, members and the community alike about the vision, goals and course corrections have been vital. In addition to hosting all staff training days, the monthly dialogues with all departments and the leadership team, Parker can be found in the branches as well.
“It’s a great time for me to listen, answer questions and make sure everyone knows the whys behind the decisions being made,” said Parker. “It’s also an opportunity for me to see how staff interacts with one another and create more depth in the organization so more folks can step up to the plate and take on leadership roles. I enjoy it because from a strategic standpoint, it helps me stay grounded and I hope the staff sees that as well.”
She added that developing a trusted go-to network helps.
“I think finding that group or circle of people to serve as a sounding board takes time and doesn’t happen overnight,” said Parker. “As CEO, although you surround yourself with great support staff, sometimes there are conversations you can’t have with them and having that trusted network is important. I have a great group of folks I can reach out to, know our discussions and feedback are honest, and will stay in that circle of trust.”
For Parker it has been important that the culture at the credit union fosters and invests in employees’ professional and personal development.
“Nothing is worse than a leader having an attitude that they are better than everyone else. I think one of your roles as a leader is to develop others and asking lots of questions, and listening can only help you do that. It’s taken me a while to learn that. I love to jump in with my cape on to help but I’ve learned it’s better to take a moment and ask probing questions because there’s a huge benefit to listening to different perspectives and thought processes,” said Parker.
“An effective leader is someone who listens and tries to figure out the hows of staying true to the vision. It’s not always a straight line, there are a few curves or turns to get to the end result. More often than not, it’s those curves and turns that make the difference. When I look back at the employees that started with us and how they’ve grown and turned into these incredible individuals who are doing such great things, that’s what I find truly rewarding.”
That desire to helping individuals do more extends to members as well. For example, five years ago the A+ Education Foundation was created to provide teacher grants. To date, $350,000 in grants has been awarded to teachers.
“With our focus on the educational community it just made sense to find a way to help local teachers,” said Parker. “It’s incredible how it’s touched a lot of lives. The teachers use those dollars in their classrooms to benefit the students, and parents see the results and how we support that community.”
In 2008, the credit union implemented a savings challenge. Three families were selected to compete for $10,000 over the course of one year. Families met regularly with a financial coach and worked to lower their debt and increase their savings. The family with the most savings and reduction of debt won the contest.
The challenge then morphed into the high school savings challenge. Through a partnership with the two high school branch schools, the credit union has conducted three high school savings challenges–an academic, year-long contest for five high school students competing for the chance to win $1,000.
Each contestant set a savings goal, met one-on-one with an A+ financial coach, attended monthly lunch workshops, and gave presentations to their peers.
The latest incarnation has been the myBusiness Challenge launched this year. A+ FCU gave six local entrepreneurs $25,000 in interest-free loans. Each of the entrepreneurs attended three and a half months of specialized financial education workshops and additional one-on-one help with the development of viable business plans.
It was also a collaboration of community groups including BiGAUSTIN, SCORE and the Texas State Small Business Development Center. The entrepreneurs conduct monthly meetings with coaches and quarterly networking gatherings with each other throughout the year.
“I think the industry as a whole struggles with this image in consumers’ minds that somehow we’re not sophisticated enough to handle the finances of the upper middle class,” said Parker.
“With what’s been going on now is that people across the economic grid are looking at credit unions as a financial alternative. Now is the time to take advantage of that and show consumers we can be sophisticated while retaining that warm welcome. We’re not just here to serve the underserved but consumers, period.”
As far as dealing with the competition, Parker has subscribed to the best advice she was ever given: pick your battles.
“It’s something you can use in any type of role–wife, mom, CEO or peer–it crosses all boundaries,” said Parker. “We had this discussion at our all staff training day about one of our competitors. I focus on what we can control here, we can’t do anything about those folks so why not generate ideas and focus on what we do well. We’re proud of our organization and each other so let’s do the best we can for our membership.
"Obviously we can’t turn a blind eye, but if we spend all our energy on what others are doing then there’s no energy left to focus on improving the member experience. Resources in CU land tend to be lean so better to use them to develop innovative solutions to ease your members’ challenges.”