Jill Nowacki, vice president of development at Maps Credit Union, had big dreams of doing public relations for an NFL team or starting a nonprofit. But a contract marketing position with the Montana Credit Union Network led to her to discover her true calling.
“I thought, oh I’ll do this for a year to gain some experience until I can move to a state with an NFL team because there couldn’t be anything exciting about marketing a checking account,” said Nowacki. “Before the year was up, it was too late because I was already ingrained in credit unions. I was motivated by their purpose, mission and to have the chance to work with people who just wanted to do more and help others. I never felt more focused and clear. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
She said despite credit unions’ 100-year history in the United States, they remain an undiscovered secret, and the desire to bring them more into the consumer mainstream has become a torch she proudly carries.
“I wish more credit unions were asking what can I do rather than what others are doing,” said Nowacki. “I think too often we look at issues, competitive pricing, products, services etc. that others are already doing and feel the need to emulate them. When maybe the answer for us is a completely different one. And its unique to each credit union. I want more credit unions asking what their community needs are and coming up with solutions tailored to meet those needs. The best programs and innovations are those that may not work in every community but are just right for their marketplace.”
As someone who values collaboration to create over titles and credit, Nowacki has harnessed her natural curiosity and genuine interest in people to encourage and gather as many ideas as possible from across the organization.
“It’s hard to imagine me saying, ‘O.K. team, here’s how it’s going to be done.’ It’s not natural to me, I’ve been a part of teams my whole life, so I want to hear any idea that’s thrown out there. When you just focus on coming together to deliver the best solution to a problem, rather than what can I get out of this, everyone wins. To me a true leader serves as a resource to support and help others in fulfilling their potential.”
She added that she tends to come from a place of happiness and is motivated by the idea of a society where others are happy for each other as well.
“For whatever reason, I feel a personal responsibility if I see something that seems inequitable or unjust, then I have to do something about it. Whether it’s a fellow employee I see has unrealized potential and helping them get to the next level or a broad population of underserved people paying more for banking than they can afford, it’s my responsibility to try to help address that. I don’t necessarily think I have all the solutions, but with my fascination with people, I get to know a lot of people so there’s always someone in my mental Rolodex who can help, and I do my best to connect people and encourage solutions.”
That ideal has also shaped her perspective on competition.
“I’m the least competitive person I know. I don’t think in terms of beating others, and I wouldn’t want to make the barometer of success based on being comparative. I just want to be the best for the value of it, not crushing others. I believe that everyone can win when we all deliver the best service to the community. I don’t feel there can ever be too many financial institutions because by serving our own specific niche and focusing on really understanding and meeting our member and community needs, then it doesn’t matter what the competition is doing.”
Since joining the Salem, Ore.-based Maps Credit Union in 2009, Nowacki has overseen the marketing, business development, and community development functions of the $410 million credit union. In addition to growing the community development team, she has spearheaded investment in Hispanic outreach and overseen the rollout of a new brand in 2011.
It’s no surprise that some of the initiatives rolled out by Maps, she is most proud of revolve around helping others connect or improve their lives.
For example, given that Salem has a 20% Hispanic population, most of whom immigrated from Oaxaca, Mexico, a team of 10 MAPS staffers teamed up with local nonprofit Friends of Pimpollo and embarked on an immersion service trip to the region as a way to better understand the culture.
“We spent a week meeting children and adults, making building improvements to their schools and met leaders of a local credit union,” said Nowacki. “It was an incredible experience to see their microfinance efforts and neighbors pooling their resources to feed the whole community. For me it drove home that this is what we are as credit unions and what good can be done when money is kept local.”
When local schools were facing unprecedented budget shortfalls, Nowacki shifted a significant portion of her marketing budget into a $50,000 donation to the local school district–the largest single donation the district has ever received.
A belief that a community is only as strong as the economic opportunities it can provide to its small business owners sparked the creation of a buy local program, which provides advertising for local businesses and discounts reserved for Maps members only. The most innovative component of the program is the featured partner offers. Every two weeks, the credit union highlights a specific buy local partner that provides a freebie to both members and nonmembers—anyone who visits the website and downloads the featured coupon.
“We’re about 40 miles from Portland and although Salem is smaller, we do have it all here, but many locals think they have to go to Portland for great dining or shopping. What makes this special is that the credit union compensates the business for the free giveaways, so the small businesses, many of whom have extremely tight margins in the current economic climate, don’t take on the risk of the offer. Instead, the credit union gives them a low-risk opportunity to convert new customers,” said Nowacki. “It’s another example of how shared ideas can offer the best solutions. This was the brainchild of Jamie Young our business development officer. You don’t have to do it all yourself, let go of the reins, tap into the many resources that surround you and trust them to carry the program forward and you’ll be thrilled with the results.”
For those looking to develop their own leadership skills, Nowacki’s advice is simple: Keep learning and having conversations with as many people as possible.
“Read all the books you can, talk to as many people as possible and don’t just look to the corner office for insight. You can learn about leadership lessons from peers, people who report to you and people in other organizations not just the CEO,” said Nowacki. “There are so many lessons in the experiences of others, soak it all up, be open and recognize you’ll get contradictory lessons but when you piece it all together it makes sense. Create an environment where you are the sum of not just your independent experience but from other people, books, classes etc. I can never imagine any position in the world where someone could say, ‘That’s it I know enough, there’s nothing more I need to learn.’ There is always someone who can teach you something, it’s what keeps you growing as an individual and keeps you challenged.”