“What gets measured, will get done” is a motto that has well served Jan Roche, president/CEO of State Department Federal Credit Union in Alexandria, Va.
Coming from a long line of accountants, Roche thought she’d graduate, work for a public accounting firm then get married and be a housewife. Life had other plans.
“When we met, my husband was employed by the Department of State. We eloped and lived in Nigeria for a year. When we decided not to have children it opened a different path for me,” said Roche. “I kind of lucked into credit unions with my first job at as vice president of finance at another credit union. It was just a matter of timing and one of those things that turned out to be the right choice. I didn’t envision this life but it has worked out way better than anything I dreamed of. I feel so very fortunate to be in this role in this organization.”
That combination of luck, timing and taking a chance, is how she got her start at the more than $1.3 billion credit union.
“The prior CEO at State Department FCU and I were friendly as we sat on boards together and would see each other at local meetings, roundtables and the like. He was retiring and everyone thought that the CEO job there was sewn up from the inside,” said Roche. “He encouraged me to apply and as a spur of the moment thing I did. What’s interesting is the board did select another candidate before me who didn’t accept the job, so again I got lucky because I was so excited about coming here and working with such an interesting group of volunteers who are successful business professionals in their own right, working full time and still taking their responsibilities to the members very seriously.”
Any recognition SDFCU has garnered over the years as a model for successful management-board relations, Roche said the bulk of the credit should go to her board chair, Marlene Schwartz.
“She has been a mentor to me,” sad Roche. “She just creates an environment on the board where taking risks is encouraged and as doing so fall forward so the credit union can succeed. The board has the attitude that if there is a problem, we’ll work through it and that is a comforting way to approach your job because let’s face it: Everyday something happens. One of the challenges in the industry has to do with board-CEO relations. There are a lot of CEOs who don’t respect what their board can bring to the table. It’s a complicated problem particularly since when that communication breaks down the organization stagnates.”
She added that a mind shift can help set CEO-board relations on the right foot.
“If you are going into a credit union with the attitude that the board doesn’t know what’s good for members as much as I do, then you are going to be fighting an uphill battle,” said Roche. “There has to be a mutual respect, transparency and explanations of why something is being done rather than this is the direction we’re taking. The board and CEO share a common goal focusing on that as the driver and having the understanding that everyone is going to want to do that in a different way makes collaboration easier.”
What has made the difference at SDFCU has been what she described as an hourglass system, where the board chair and CEO are at the center of the hourglass. Anything from staff and CEO gets passed onto the board via the board chair and anything from the board gets passed on to the CEO via the board chair.
“It helps that I have one place to report and it helps the board present a more cohesive front rather than nine different paths, for staff it clarifies the lines of authority and basically everyone knows what’s expected as we all work through the chain of command,” said Roche. “It goes back to that transparency. In my mind the definition of a successful leader is going places in a direction that others want to follow. It’s more about the path we're taking than anything else painting that vision for others of what it’s going to look like while we get there. Personally I can tend to be very results driven and that’s why I make sure leaders who are more employee-driven surround me and it makes for a nice balance. My role is more, ‘this is where we’re looking to go and what we’re measuring and you guys get us there.’ Ultimately it’s about doing what’s best for the member and not losing sight of that.”
For the past seven years SDFCU has become more member focused with input from across the organization and the members themselves.
“Just getting the front line staff involved has made a huge difference and led to many great ideas which are still being implemented,” said Roche. “I think the challenge as a CEO is to stop yourself from jumping in and providing solutions or saying ‘why don’t we do this.’ I’ve been truly amazed with what other ideas bubble up from this great team of people when I just let them. As CEOs our prewiring to help can in the end prevent a better idea from coming through.
Roche said the credit union’s cost reduction and efficiency focus was one of her most prized initiatives, leading the credit union to finish 2011 with a 2.34% operating expense to assets ratio. She added that she was also proud of SDFCU’s member rewards program, where points are earned on debit cards, credit cards and for online bill pay.
In addition, SDFCU’s financial education focus has resulted in delivering around 80 educational seminars in 2011, the board of directors and 100% of staff passing the financial skills training, and the creation of a financial advocate position within the lending team to work with members who can’t qualify for a loan.
“Looking ahead, we’re working to expand our outreach overseas, which we see as being our niche. As the only credit union serving the Department of State, it’s a very serious responsibility so that means looking for additional ways to serve them from shared branching to a more robust iPad application,” said Roche. “It’s about meeting our members needs at every touch point.”
As for advice for future leaders, she said nothing derails more leaders’ careers than ego and not keeping your commitments.
“My father engrained it in me that you have to keep your commitments and promises. Or as Leon Redbone coined it ‘I don’t care what you do, just do what you say you’re going to do.’ No one is perfect but if you are not able to do something, then communicate why and how it can be done more effectively or how you can recoup from it,” said Roche.
She also doesn’t even acknowledge the stereotypical “old boys club” mentality having ever held her back.
“I’ve always approached it as a state of mind where it’s only a problem if you let it be one,” said Roche. “That being said, I’ve been fortunate as the metro-D.C. area is more progressive and I grew up in New York on Long Island. I choose not to make it a problem because it can become an excuse not to take a chance. The opportunities are there and you can seize them. When it comes down to it everyone has something they are overcoming.”
Given that men and women work and solve problems differently, Roche has learned the importance of networking with other women leaders by attending an annual women’s leadership symposium.
“It consists of a group of 35 female CEOs and is one of my favorite events all year, because we get together and just get to talk about work, exchange ideas and collaborate on solutions,” said Roche. “I tended to shy away from women’s groups so I was talked into attending the first time, and I’m glad I went because now access to 35 great minds is just a phone call or email away. If you look at the common denominators for all great leaders male or female it boils down to tenacity, the ability to paint the vision for others and the final piece of passion for what you are doing and for the organization. Your level of passion changes and may peak and valley but that love for what your organization is trying to accomplish if you believe in that and give all you’ve got you can’t help but succeed. The end game for any good leader is putting the needs of the organization ahead of their own and being selfless.”