When Credit Union Times first launched the Women to Watch program, we wanted to focus on those women working within credit unions. It’s been an honor to be able to recognize those who challenge the status quo and push creative solutions to address what ails their credit union and oftentimes, the industry as a whole.
What we discovered is that it is just as important to shine the spotlight on those women who have been tirelessly dedicated to providing support to credit unions. The list is far from complete, but we thought this Women to Watch focus report would be a good start to showcase those who choose to champion the credit union mission every day.
A brief look at each of our honorees appeared in our Oct. 3 print edition. Here are detailed profiles of each of these industry leaders. Click "next" at the bottom of each page through the following slide show to see them all.
PSCU’s Fredda McDonald Says Women Should be As Intentional About Mentoring as Men
“One common theme throughout my career has been the intentionality of growing as a leader,” said Fredda McDonald, executive vice president for credit union experience at St. Petersburg, Fla.-based traditional and online financial services provider PSCU, of her overall leadership journey.
“I wanted to be an English teacher and what I’m doing now is not something that I could’ve ever planned beyond being prepared for opportunity, understanding my gift or talent and being flexible. I think the ultimate career goals are more about the lifestyle you want and the ability to fulfill the self more than a title or job.”
A believer in the philosophy that to whom much is given, much is required as far as a responsibility to give back, McDonald has been a longtime champion of women’s leadership. In addition to initiating and supporting several women programs, she created a Women’s Leadership group at PSCU. This year, she expanded the program to include a Women’s Leadership Forum for member credit unions during the PSCU Annual Member Forum.
“There’s nothing wrong with the “old boys club.’ Why haven’t we created and ‘old girls club’,” McDonald half joked. “Women should be as intentional about our mentoring as men are. We can come together on what we share and help each other succeed honestly regardless of gender to make the whole workplace better by embracing diversity in general.”
She said it has been a combination of hard work, luck and timing that landed her finally at PSCU.
“I had a role at MasterCard overseeing the process relationship with banks and credit unions and PSCU was one of my clients,” said McDonald. “Mike recruited me and I love watching people grow and develop as leaders themselves over time. My approach is more collaborative because I believe none of us is as smart individually as we can be as a group. It’s about creating a culture of trust, openness where we can all dialogue together about ideas and disagree without being disagreeable to innovate.”
She added that it’s important that everyone be allowed to lead from where they are regardless of title, role or responsibility.
“It’s a change in mindset. To be an organization that wants to differentiate and innovate everyone must be inspired from the representative on the phone in the call center to the implementation team and product and design group,” said McDonald. “We define innovation as the relentless pursuit of better ways. That’s not to say we’re going to invent something new but it’s about continuous improvement.”
Looking ahead, she said the evolution of payments has been cause for excitement and concern.
“Consumers have changed the way they pay. How it impacts financial institutions is going to be a pivot point on how to keep consumers engaged with them while being relevant to consumers in the future,” said McDonald. “We’ve got to keep on the pulse of the new consumer in how they relate to financial institutions. Look at Bank Transfer Day, traditional banks were so out of touch they didn’t recognize that there could be a mass migration away from them and it happened in a flash. So understanding what we did to attract consumers and what we need to do to keep them is vitally important.”
She added that means digging into what truly drives loyalty.
“Credit unions still focus on branches and where they are located. If they ask themselves the why behind that belief of a branch as the heartbeat of loyalty they may have different answers if they haven’t asked that question lately,” said McDonald. “I think we should always be asking how consumer behavior is changing and we need to understand the new membership we want to attract.”
As far as the competition, McDonald said to look to nontraditional players taking deposits who are looking for ways to become the central point for most consumers.
The Members Group CEO Shazia Manus Started Early as an Entrepreneur
The word “can’t”, simply doesn’t exist for Shazia Manus, CEO of The Members Group, a card processing and payments solutions provider based in Des Moines, Iowa.
“I grew up in a culture where there’s self imposed norms and beliefs but in spite of that I had constant encouragement from my grandfather and I looked at ways to do, achieve more,” said Manus, who is a native of Bangladesh. “Coming from that culture which relegates women to second class, I never let it get to me. I always stayed true to my beliefs, values because I learned that if I didn’t define myself and quickly, then someone else would do it for me.”
She started her first business at 17 and by her 20s had opened several others including a boutique store and a canteen cafeteria, while studying at the University of Dhaka in the economics honors program.
“Microfinance in Bangladesh helped in the empowerment of women. I had quite in-depth experience in that model from an early age. It made an impact and helped me with the mindset, desire to be an owner, make a difference,” said Manus. “I’d wanted to pursue an academic career in economics in London but life and circumstances led our family to the U.S and took me to a different path. This may not have been what I originally envisioned but I’m very happy and grateful to be where I am. All my experiences, defining moments in life have made me stronger to pursue dreams and discover possibilities I didn’t know I had in myself.”
She learned about credit unions after completing her degree in economics at Iowa State University and said the people helping people, community centric focus simply resonated with her on a deeper level. Her innate curiosity has served her well throughout her life, and career.
“I find inspiration all around, by nature, people, my surroundings- all of it,” said Manus. “I constantly look for what can be possible, questioning why something is the way it is rather than taking it for granted because it has always been that way. Even personally I can often be my worst critic because I ask what can I be doing differently, look for ways to improve my skill sets. I see life as a constant learning journey and the day I know it all I might as well drop dead, so I self-motivate.”
She added that today’s leader needs to be collaborative, take risks, and have an entrepreneurial mindset and the ability to pivot fast.
“Look at what it took for Steve Jobs, Apple is the biggest start-up on the planet,” said Manus. “The company was quickly adaptive and recognized that market nuances have really changed. It’s in paying attention that you find what may not be apparent at the moment. There are many opportunities on the horizon but the reality is there are only so many hours in the day. So I try to balance managing a strong business core with pursuing multiple new opportunities or innovation that help the company move forward. I think the how to do that is the common challenge for any executive.”
For Manus, leadership is a privilege and honor that she takes seriously.
“The best part of what I do is that feeling of wanting to come to work reinvigorated,” said Manus. “The days are long, can be stressful and there’s a lot on my plate but I wake up every morning wanting to be back in it. We have such an amazing group of people who are challenged to think differently, push boundaries and take risks. I really believe to move forward you can’t mimic or replicate, you must find your competitive advantage.”
She added that true innovation is based on identifying and solving the most relevant consumer problems.
“You can create a great product but it’s just a great idea if consumers don’t find it relevant and there’s no mass appeal,” said Manus. “It takes hard work and is a deliberate, messy process where mistakes will be made along the way but those bold, calculated risks can only pay off if you don’t give up. When you think about the iPhone for example, all the gadgets existed- the Walkman, iPod, cell phone, clock, email. So they didn’t have to create all those elements but what they did is put it all together in a compact way that now we can’t live without.”
Given that the business environment in general is complex, ambiguous as far as what the future may hold, it’s important to also be in the present as the landscape constantly changes at a fast pace. She said that credit unions as a whole need to be alert, agile and proactive in their approach to challenges. Some of the questions she feels the industry should be asking revolve around leadership succession, service and the business model.
“There are decades of experience and passion in the movement so as they retire and new generations of leaders come in how can we transfer that knowledge? Do we have the development and succession plans and governance model we need to be sustainable for future? Also who is the target market is there a well defined vision of what we want to accomplish as a movement,” said Manus. “Another element to explore is how has our economy, demographic shifted in the past 100 years and in what ways have we stayed the same? Is it bold enough to be relevant to future generations of members? Are we being adaptive with the right products, service for the market we serve? Those responses of the past may not be relevant today so it’s looking at what drives us forward and identifying what and where those gaps in competencies we need exist.”
Her advice for those looking to become leaders follows along those same lines of analysis.
“Leadership is not necessarily in a title. There are always people who have tremendous influence,” said Manus. “Check your ego at the door. Be humble, be genuine, have discipline and that level five ambition. Be open to learning from as many sources, people and experiences as possible. I see myself as a chief listening officer and removing those barriers to individuals introducing or expanding on ideas is something I do take pride in. Most of all stay true to yourself.”
CUNA Counsel Mary Dunn Knows the Rewards of Perseverance
Mary Dunn, senior vice president/deputy general counsel at CUNA, knows something about the rewards of perseverance.
“Since I was a little girl I wanted to be an attorney,” said Dunn. “There were a few setbacks on the way not the least of which I couldn’t afford law school so I had to postpone it and go later after I was married and had a daughter. I’ve enjoyed the work very much. I don’t like that credit unions are so burdened with regulations but the legal issues are varied and challenging and the best part is helping credit unions.”
Her first job out of college was working in the government affairs department for the U.S. League of Savings, a trade group for savings associations. At the league, she had done some research on credit unions, because thrifts were concerned about them as competitors.
“One of my colleagues at the time said you know what credit unions are pretty great and I already knew a bunch of people at NAFCU so it made for a pretty easy transition to help credit unions succeed,” said Dunn, who also went to school nights to earn her law degree.
For Dunn the thrill has been doing what she loves and she starts each day with the thought that “maybe this will be the day we really can make a difference for credit unions.” With all the opportunities available on a daily basis, she tries to maximize and get the most out of every experience.
“CUNA was really the first to create a regulatory advocacy department. There had been regulatory affairs and compliance but I think CUNA was the first to name it and put muscle behind what they were trying to do in terms of credit union advocacy,” said Dunn.
She added that given the regulatory burdens credit unions face, political advocacy has become even more vital.
“If we can’t get credit union champions in Congress rain or shine, it’s going to be difficult. More and more credit unions are getting involved in lobbying their regulators, meeting with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau etc., and we need even more credit union folks to be active on all fronts. The real challenge is how to keep engaged without feeling overtaxed?”
As far as the competitive landscape, Dunn said payments will be an issue going forward and the challenge of staying relevant in the lives of credit union members young and old will be ongoing but remains optimistic about the future.
“I think one commonly held belief is that credit unions just serve a particular niche in the marketplace,” said Dunn. “They are for everyone. Just because people who are working primarily take advantage of credit unions, doesn’t mean that others can’t as well.”
To Dunn, the only limits that exist are those that have been self-imposed.
“The moment you think you have all the answers and just rely on yourself is when you start to lose something of what it is to be a true, effective leader,” said Dunn. “Every leader needs to have some ego but the key is to not let it get the best of you or believing all those compliments paid. I strive constantly to be a leader and try not to ever lose out on an opportunity to seek out and surround myself with good people to work with.”
Never afraid of hard work, she also has been a big believer in working as smartly as possible.
“It can sometimes be easier said than done but the world keeps growing, so it’s about what you can do to get the most bang for your buck,” said Dunn. “As far as communication, I do believe in being upfront but try to be as dynamic and clear as possible. For example, with regulators, on what credit unions need in terms of regulatory relief and communicating to credit unions what we do. Try to have the tenacity of staying with it, whatever the goal may be. “
Her advice for future leaders starts with passion.
“Pick something you can be dedicated to and just pour your heart into,” said Dunn. “Don’t be afraid to take on tasks, however small, because they can lead to more responsibility, more visibility later. Leaders are not developed overnight, it’s a process and even CEOs are still sorting out what it takes to be an effective leader. Your education never stops. Continue to educate yourself in many ways, reading as much as you can and try to get first hand knowledge of how things actually work. In general, gather as much knowledge as you can, stay positive and never give up.”
“I think it’s important to never be satisfied,” said Dunn. “There’s a lot more I want to accomplish outside of the credit union system and I plan on leading a long life.”
Since early on, a life of service has always been in the cards for Susan Mitchell, president/CEO at Nev.-based consulting firm Mitchell, Stankovic & Associates, but she never dreamed it would be with credit unions.
“ I intended to do something along the lines of social work. My mother always said to give more than you expect from others,” said Mitchell. “We started our business in 1985 and in working with banks and credit unions I learned the difference between project people and partners. We began specializing in credit union industry and never looked back. So while this wasn’t the original plan, I ended up essentially doing the work I wanted and I love what I do 150%.”
She has taken an equally passionate approach to leadership and creating an achievement-oriented organization.
“What drives me is results-to the point of not playing unless we can get results. I don’t want to just spin my wheels,” said Mitchell. “I’m very direct in that everyone knows where they stand. We set goals, vision together it’s a collaborative environment and we all work hard to make things happen. We all believe in wanting the best and that’s motivational.”
Simply put, not successfully completing a challenge has never been an option.
“The best way to silence doubts, fears is to push through it and I think having that core belief that we can make a difference,” said Mitchell. “You silence critics, even those internal ones we all have by demonstrating results.”
In 2009, Mitchell was recognized by the World Council of Credit Unions for her volunteerism in developing countries around the world and her program advisory consultation in the creation of the Global Women’s Initiative that in its inaugural year had 78 members and over 22 countries represented.
The Global Women's Leadership Network connects credit union women with fellow leaders in other credit union movements all over the world and engages them in professional and personal development through social media and educational forums. The network offers international perspectives on the common challenges faced by all around the globe, ranging from growth strategies to alternative capital and operational efficiencies.
The concept behind the network has been by interacting with other professionals in a business forum, women can access unlimited resources and learn from the experiences of their peers.
For Mitchell, chairing WLN has been a life changing experience.
“So often we work with a limited scope. what a gift to be able to expand the view to a global one and hear about the many success stories worldwide,” said Mitchell. The WLN is not about women vs. men but about communities coming together and changing lives through financial empowerment on a global basis. When I was asked to be chair the idea was it’d be an educational forum and bring together this group of bright visionaries from around the world to see what differences we can make.”
According to Mitchell, it has grown to so much more and some six months ago the sister society idea was hatched.
“There were groups in Mexico, New Guinea, Africa so let’s do the same in the US. It’s the first time WOCCU has ever done a project in the US that mirrors what’s been done in other countries around the world revolving around the theme of professional, personal and community development.”
More than just creating opportunities Mitchell said she’d like to see more women who want to engage and take advantage of those opportunities.
“The questions I’d like more women to ask centers around the idea of how can I own this, take responsibility and get out there to make a difference to myself,” said Mitchell. “When it comes to us in general women are not as confident to ask those tough questions of themselves and others. It’s like the difference between mentoring and coaching. Coaching is telling me what to do toward a goal. Mentoring is learning from one another to help see the possibility to grow.”
Her mentors have ranged from her business partner Mike Stankovic who taught her to balance her life and has always challenged her thinking with insight which resulted in better outcomes; to Stan Hollen, CEO at CO-OP Financial Services, who recognized her vision, believed in their organization and has continued to share his business perspective.
“There have been and are so many. Judy McCartney, retired CEO of Orange County Credit Union, who for more than 15 years helped grow the business and today celebrates my crazy side with me,” said Mitchell. “And Brian Branch, WOCCU president/CEO, he models the way as a leader. I am learning the global perspective, in the field credit union development work and making a difference as a volunteer.”
She added that opportunities about in the credit union volunteer arena.
“The board can and should be to a credit union’s strategic advantage,” said Mitchell. “Credit unions should not only look to develop their board but think in terms of exploring how they can work together so that the board can be that strategic advantage. Our business model has changed, so we should be looking at how the board fits into it today.”
A believer in the concept of organizational transition, she said even the definition of community can also be reevaluated as credit unions seek to understand differentiation.
“Differentiation isn’t about the brand name or tagline. Credit unions are the original social network, so how can we use our roots and build that into a robust, value proposition that attracts consumers,” said Mitchell. “The competition is ignorance. I think the greatest competitor is the lack of knowledge of what we do. We can say it’s the bank on the corner or those that offer greater access online but ignorance of our place in the market could be our greatest defeat. Do we have a culture that rings true as an industry? I think in crafting that leveraged opportunity to build awareness, talks break down over the message itself. The emphasis is on the wrong syllable so it’s on how we say it rather than on identifying and defining the core purpose and value.”
She added that drafting a message that’s relevant across generations and demographic groups that rings true remains one of the industry’s greatest challenges. To that end she said authentic leadership has never been more important.
“The economic rollercoaster of the past few years has been awful, but I believe out of that comes more opportunity to serve consumers in a different way. So we can never give up. The core attributes of leadership of being authentic, having core principles, belief in the vision and the drive to make it happen remain the same it’s just a matter of how it’s applied that has changed,” said Mitchell. “A lack of focus is the one behavior that derails more leaders careers. I think we get so many things going on and so many opinions, influences that we lose focus on what trying to accomplish and as a leader you’ve got to come back to the core of what’s the mission and what your trying to do overall.”
Mitchell has always viewed luck as the crossroad where opportunity and preparation meet.
“Being prepared has allowed me to take risks, meet great mentors and have the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the business both male and female,” said Mitchell. “One of my greatest strengths is the ability to help people connect and create a tipping point.”
Corelation's Theresa Benavidez Gets to the Core With Innovative Processor
Theresa Benavidez, president of Corelation, a core processing firm based in San Diego, has always had a knack for making the most of an opportunity.
While working as a teller at a credit union, Benavidez’ head teller, who had just returned from a job interview suggested she get her resume in order to apply for the job herself.
“When she called me into her office I wondered what did I do,” said Benavidez. “She told me about the job training clients on a computer systems product and that she thought I’d be great at it. It was a matter of the right place, right time and taking advantage of incredible opportunities to get to where I am today.”
Growing up in a small town in Colorado, seeing how her grandparents who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico worked hard to make sure their family would have better opportunities, Benavidez never imagined how many turns her career path would take.
“It’s very humbling,” said Benavidez. “I am grateful for our team of really creative problem solving thinkers who are so committed to the industry. So many were willing to take the risk, walking away from their longtime careers to be a part of this and build a great organization together.”
When Corelation officially launched in 2009, John Landis and Benavidez wanted to create an open, transparent environment where staff would be involved as much as possible in the decision process from direction and innovation to client support.
“I believe the most important thing we can do for our employees is to lead and act with integrity-always. There are no short cuts or easy way to get there,” said Benavidez. “I had the good fortune of working for a man who was a great role model in many ways and I always had trust in him. I think when you lose or break that trust with employees its so hard and there’s a lot of work to do to get that back. If we’re not leading with integrity, employees see right through that.
“There wouldn’t be that buy in, which is so important otherwise it would just be people going through the motions. We can’t do this without everyone being fully invested and trusting that those decisions made are guided by what’s best for the company and for them.”
She added that the atmosphere has been one in which challenges are viewed as great opportunities for learning.
“Truly the team here is amazing and I love that we all look forward to the next step and what the impact will be on the customers. It’s what drives and motivates us. Every decision we make impacts thousands of real people at the gas pump, grocery store or waiting for that payroll deposit, so we have to strike the balance between being careful yet moving quickly,” said Benavidez. “I think innovation comes when people have a can do attitude and approach developing solutions without any preconceptions.”
She said that at times the tendency in many organizations has been to overanalyze and overcomplicate things making the process more difficult than it needs to be.
“To get innovative solutions out the door keep it simple, have fewer people involved get it started and then move more people in as you gain momentum. As a leader, let the team do what they do best and get out of the way. You’ll be wowed by the results,” said Benavidez.
Never one to pass up an opportunity to learn Benavidez said not to underestimate the importance of networking.
“There are mentors everywhere so don’t limit yourself to just one,” said Benavidez. “It can’t hurt to have someone you admire who has been down that road to counsel you but there’s something to learn from everyone you interact with from the people who clean your office, tellers, to accountants, they all have life experiences that when shared may help you. Never be afraid to ask questions.”
Looking ahead she said challenges facing the credit union industry overall range from regulations and compliance to figuring out how to continue to be relevant particularly in engaging the younger demographic.
“There is still an awareness issue where many of the younger consumers don’t know what credit unions do or who we are,” said Benavidez. “I was on the plane the other day and the person next to me asked what I did and when he heard credit unions the response was oh so they’re like Experian or another credit rating bureau? It’s getting better but the disconnect is still there and it’s a matter of finding a way to reach out to the younger generation and establish your position with them as future borrowers and future leaders.”
NAFCU Chief Lawyer Carrie Hunt Says Opportunities There for the Learning
Credit unions may owe a debt of gratitude to Carrie Hunt’s sister.
“I wanted to go to law school early on and it was my secret goal but my sister who was 17 months older had said she wanted to be a lawyer,” said Hunt who today serves as general counsel/vice president of regulatory affairs at NAFCU. “She changed her mind and I stayed on the path. I didn’t set out saying I wanted to be credit union regulatory attorney, but the elements of my job of wanting to be challenged in a career I love, being involved with politics, I’ve achieved that. I’ve had so much opportunity here at NAFCU over the past eight years in a collaborative environment working with a great group of people. Looking at the overall journey that led me here, it’s been a long road, with bumps along the way, but I can honestly say I’ve loved every job I’ve ever had. I think I took chances, worked hard and it’s paid over.”
She said the key to that sense of contentment has been a focus on what was expected in each role and do that to the best of her ability.
“So many look at the next step that they’re not focused on what they’re supposed to be doing,” said Hunt.
It’s something she learned early on serving as an office assistant making placards, typing lists etc.
“I made the best lists and placards I could and that led to training congressional interns on how to use and find bill summaries,” said Hunt. “My advice for anyone is to find the substantive work in every job that exists in every job and work hard. Sometimes you get lucky and if there are factors that are out of you control like there is no opportunity for advancement then don’t be afraid to look elsewhere for you to take that next step.”
Hunt’s parents, who both worked for the federal government, fostered an inner drive to always set and strive for goals.
“My parents certainly led by example. They worked hard and were very honest about some of what they thought were mistakes in life, what they would’ve done differently and wanted us to learn from those with a focus on the why’s behind being successful or doing well at school,” said Hunt. “From early on they fostered that sense of having personal goals and the confidence to do things that would make me happy. I also learned
not to be afraid to take different paths or branch out instead of being stuck doing one thing.”
She added her general optimistic, yet practical outlook has seeped into her approach to leadership.
“I try to lead by example and am very direct,” said Hunt. “There’s no hiding the ball, I tell it like it is in a way that doesn’t hurt feelings. I think being honest, and giving appropriate feedback helps all in the long run. I’m lucky to be surrounded by a lot of the people I work with every day seeing what others strengths are drives and pushes me to try to achieve the same.”
To Hunt, opportunities abound to further develop personally or professionally- it’s a matter of being open to learn.
“When I was in college the head of the student legal aid office taught me more about legal research than anything I learned in law school and showed me what a real lawyer was as opposed to what you see on television,” said Hunt. “I think mentors happen naturally in unexpected ways, your peers or someone at a networking event. What’s important is to look to a lot of different people. You’ll find many mentors as long as you are open to seeking information and willing to always keep learning.”
She added that one of the most important lessons learned in management has been to delegate appropriately, relying on the team, allowing and providing opportunities for them to shine. The economic upheavals of the past few years have made leadership even more critical.
“I think that when times get tough having a strong leader is very important,” said Hunt. “And I think having leaders willing to acknowledge they can make mistakes and work through those is important as well. People can take missteps but there’s always the opportunity to take a different direction to get back on track.”
Part of adjusting course, means taking an honest assessment of what’s going on.
“I think that credit unions need to recognize that our risks are real, taxation, ongoing consolidation, many think that credit unions will always be around,” said Hunt. “I hope so, but the industry as a whole needs to have a realistic view of the next few years and do what’s necessary to keep credit unions a very strong part of the banking system.”
She added that the top challenge facing the industry can be summed up in one word- compliance. In just the past month alone, thousands of pages of regulations affecting everything from mortgage lending and disclosures of finance charges, to how loan originators should be trained has been passed.
“It has a huge impact,” said Hunt. “Regulators say they understand but when credit unions look at the burden it’s caused in the hours to comply and the fact that regulators don’t feel they have to justify the rules but others have to justify every item can be very frustrating,” said Hunt.
Looking ahead, Hunt said the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is worth keeping an eye on.
“What they are doing is counterproductive and the larger impact down the line, NCUA may adopt some of the initiatives, programs CFPB is doing that may result in longer, more difficult exams for credit unions without any real benefit to the industry or consumers,” said Hunt. “Credit unions may have to stop doing certain activities because the regulatory compliance may be too great. The pendulum may not swing back in time to survive on a general competitive basis or we won’t be able to provide services that the economy and community needs. In terms of what credit unions can do locally and on a bigger scale to make a difference is work together to give comment to regulators.”
She added that while grassroots efforts continue to matter, it will be equally important to explore different types of solutions, whether though shared branching, shared back office operations or other areas.
Filene Problem Solver Denise Gabel Keeps Focus on Tomorrow
While others have been busy working on today, Denise Gabel, chief finance and strategy officer at Madison, Wis.-based Filene Research Institute has been focused on tomorrow.
She credits her absolute comfort in trying something new, to her father pushing her down the big slide she was terrified of when she was younger.
Like many, Gabel didn’t know much about credit unions and fell into the industry when a colleague at the Institute for Financial Education suggested she apply for a marketing position at a credit union.
“A what? To be honest, my career has been a combination of some dumb luck along with a thirst for people and problem solving,” said Gabel. “A number of years ago, I realized that this notion of innovation was growing and it presented itself as a big challenge of how does an organization build an effective, repeatable innovation competency so it remains relevant. I began to immerse myself in everything I could get my hands on—books, classes, tapping other smart people and then I began to experiment, build and most importantly make mistakes.”
Words associated with Gabel’s approach to leadership and communication have ranged from participative, failing forward, and having fun, to mentor, enabling people to find their authentic self and creating the future. She has even been accused of being too communicative, a badge she has continued to wear proudly.
“There was a colleague who once shouted at me ‘Denise, you die a slow death’ at the weekly executive team meeting,” said Gabel. “It was quite a wake up call. My eyes and ears opened that day as I realized that what I don’t see, others could. It helped me to listen to myself and others. So once I got over the shock, I said ‘Yes, I do. It’s a gift, thank you.’ I’m passionate about the journey, which is often long, so if I give up then we will never get there.”
That belief in the journey has helped shape Gabel’s definition of innovation as simply solving problems that add real value.
“I think the economic crisis has been the tipping point for leaders to embrace a shift in power to support this ‘new normal’. The Internet has enabled collaboration, access to knowledge, and ripped playbooks wide open. Leaders who intentionally fan the flames in favor of transparency and encourage the voices that reside within the social networks will fuel a firestorm and gain the advantage,” said Gabel. “The new competitor is the entrepreneur next door. Look at Piggy Mojo. They didn’t know anything about credit unions, they just designed to solve a consumer problem. It ended happily ever after when they piloted with a credit union. That’s the face of the competition-not a Fortune 500 giant.”
For Gabel, the new non-traditional entrants represent opportunities to import an idea and leverage the relationships and distribution channels that credit unions own.
“Why re-create the wheel when the entrepreneur next door is already ahead of you,” said Gabel.
She added that the industry as whole cannot continue to bet that any of their competitors will always behave in the same way, nor rely on the standard “service makes us better.”
“I wish we’d stop saying banks don’t collaborate because they absolutely do. And while credit unions do deliver great service you’ve got to dig deeper to build your sustainable competitive advantage,” said Gabel. “Stop with the ‘they’ did this. My answer is always, when we find ‘them’ we will address ‘them’, but in the meantime we have this challenge to solve so let’s get busy.”
Given the importance of remaining relevant, Gabel advised credit unions to reevaluate how their time and resources have been allocated.
“Once you are aware of how you are spending your time you may see that you’re so focused on dealing with the immediate day-to-day that there’s no way to look out ahead, let alone have anything in your innovation portfolio,” said Gabel. “At least some portion of time needs to be invested in thinking about the future. Just because the horizon seems fuzzy while the here and now is so clear, it doesn’t dismiss our responsibility to look out and simply ask why not? There has to be a way to leverage each other in the next generation business model.”
A focus on solving common problems, has been one of the reasons why Gabel has been so proud of Filene’s i3 innovation program.
“The people in i3 have delivered some impressive innovation on behalf of the US and Canadian Credit Union Systems. These people and their organizations have the bragging rights to a number of successes—Save to Win, Why. Coop, LIFT—and a number of great failures too,” said Gabel. “But I always encourage failure. It’s okay to fail and don’t think of it as being comfortable with making a mistake. You learn a lot, that you can apply the next time around.”
For example, Debt in Focus (now SavvyMoney) became the first i3 concept that 200 credit unions raised their hands to beta test. According to Gabel, in a very short period of time the product began serving 500,000 consumers and today reaches even more consumers through SavvyMoney. To her, delivering products that solve real consumer challenges and add value, trumps any discussion of a national brand awareness campaign.
“In the case of Google, Microsoft, Apple, and YouTube, what came first—the branding campaign or the killer product that met the needs of the consumer? I would argue that the product came first,” said Gabel. “In the case of credit unions, I continue to support the notion that this industry can be a product leader. Credit unions clearly have trust and community as a competitive advantage. And, at their core, they collaborate. Wouldn’t it be sad to share an amazing product/service with your friend only to have them ask where they can get that? You’d have to say, at a credit union.”
Simply put credit unions and leaders should be careful they are not standing in their own way.
“That advice came to me about midway through my leadership career,” said Gabel. “Often times we do stand in our own way. I remember a time in a meeting I was second guessing myself and in my head, wondered am I standing in my own way about the value of my opinion? Then I thought, well I hope not! So I spoke up- loud enough to drown out that doubtful voice inside.”
Over the years she has learned that it’s important to recognize that you have a gift to give and to step up and stretch yourself forward, while paying attention to how you feel.
“If blank pages and people energize you, then lead them. If tasks and personal accomplishments feel good, then lead yourself. Never settle as gifts are there to be used,” said Gabel. “The challenge is finding the right coach at the right time in your career. Sometimes you are the best coach for you—you just have to listen. Other times, a family member or friend can be helpful. And finally, sometimes a professional mentor can help. I always stop myself and ask what am I trying to do? Where am I stuck? This helps me find the right resource.”
She added never underestimate the value of having a great support system. For her, that’s been her husband Dennis.
“I really chose the right partner. This man is the other half of my heart and my brain,” said Gabel. “He shoves me forward when I need it, he smacks me down when I get too far out ahead of myself, and he patiently waits for me again and again. Frankly, I want him close because he knows too much.”
CO-OP’s Samantha Paxson Says Tight Times Allow Creativity to Shine
The phrase ‘go for it’, pretty much sums up the leadership journey of Samantha Paxson, vice president, marketing at Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.-based ATM and shared branching network provider, CO-OP Financial Services.
“I was given a lot of responsibility and a lot of freedom early in my career – taking a leadership role with a few growing accounts at a small public relations and advertising agency in my mid-twenties. I was a driven, nipping at your heels, pain in the neck who wanted to take on more, learn more and do more. I made plenty of mistakes, humbling mistakes. But I sure gained loads of valuable experience,” said Paxson of her time at the agency that had at the time just taken on a new client CO-OP Network, which introduced her to credit unions. “It’s the mistakes and failures that stand out in my memory, but they taught me I can think critically, problem-solve and often devise a better outcome. Those experiences also made me obsessive about planning.”
A believer in the mistakes are forgiven, surprises are not approach, Paxson has made it a point to not just go big but communicate big and have a back-up plan for the back-up plan.
“With leadership it may be a cliché but its true, always be a student in your discipline and of other leaders in business. Never, ever stop growing and learning, stay true to your point of view and always deliver your best work. Mediocre is not inspiring. When resources are tight is when creative problem solving and clever thinking show themselves,” said Paxson. “I also think it’s important to test yourself with leadership work outside your field and read everything you can blogs, TED, Fast Company, case studies on companies your admire.”
Prior to joining the firm she’d never heard of credit unions. With credit unions needing a shot of awareness, you could say Paxson found a roundabout way to parlay her dreams of being a documentary filmmaker or writer for the New York Times.
“I found that I enjoyed and had a knack for things like planning, messaging strategy, writing and working in a collaborative environment where I could impact the direction of the organization. Journalism morphed into public relations and integrated marketing,” said Paxson. “I want to produce work that inspires others. I admire companies and innovators that have had the imagination and the guts to change their category and their industry. Credit unions should not be the best kept secret in financial services. They should be leading the financial services industry. There is a public that is hungry for an authentic, caring, convenient alternative. We need to deliver an experience that is unexpected and worthy of not just sharing, but shouting about. “
At CO-OP she’s found great freedom, trust and opportunities to collaborate with a team filled with people much smarter than her.
“I am an open-source collaborator. I enjoy the art of the brainstorm. I tend to think better when I’m exchanging ideas, researching and debating with smart, driven people. It’s one of the things I like best about working with Caroline Willard,” said Paxson. “Taking a small thought and transforming it into a big idea is fun both in process and outcome.”
One of her great challenges has been convincing the risk adverse to move beyond the status quo or the “that’s the way it’s always been done” mindset.
“New ideas are scary, but comfort zones deliver results that can be scarier,” said Paxson. “Gaining that elusive buy-in can be a challenge, but as a category, I know we can gain more than seven percent of the market from banks. New thinking and a dose of courage will help us get there.”
Along those lines, she said in many ways credit unions have an inferiority complex as a category and there is a need for the industry as a whole to dig deeper.
I believe we often have an inferiority complex as a category. We accept our place in the market. We have the values and scale to make big changes in financial services – we just need to find our swagger. We should question what would my target member really want? What is the retail experience, the online experience, the application and onboarding experience,” said Paxson. “Always walk in the member’s shoes and see things as the member sees them – and ask yourself what needs to be addressed to make it extraordinary. Let’s face it – the member experience is online, mobile, streamlined and convenient. Some of us are doing it, but as a category are we known for this?”
Rather than the common credit union challenges of awareness, technology and reticence to change, Paxson would welcome a primary industry concern of wrestling with managing success.
“We need to work very hard to make sure that credit unions are in the ‘consideration’ set of financial institutions. Coming together as a movement to present a common brand idea; stressing above and beyond personal, local care on the one hand and convenient, next and new product accessibility on the other, will move our industry well above lackluster banks – leapfrogging them to be the way forward for savvy consumers,” said Paxson.
CO-OP’s Caroline Willard Sees Collaboration as Key to Accomplishment
You could say getting into credit unions has been a dream come true for Caroline Willard, executive vice president, markets and strategy at Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.-based ATM and shared branching network provider CO-OP Financial Services.
“I worked at a thrift and saw the results profit-taking have on a company culture first hand and knew I didn’t want to be in that environment. I remember watching a board member head into the thrift to get paid for coming into a board meeting and it just turned my stomach,” said Willard. “While I was at the thrift I got a call from a recruiter for a job at a credit union and in preparing for the interview I spoke with someone who is actually still at a credit union to this day and she just raved about being able to serve the greater good and I thought I’ve got to get this job.”
She did and never looked back. She later met CO-OP CEO Stan Hollen at CUNA’s Governmental Affairs Conference and he mentioned that he could use someone for strategic planning.
“It was a matter of luck, making the most of the opportunity and it being the right place at the right time for me,” said Willard. “Working for someone who has placed that kind of trust in me, there are no words. I also love the collaboration here. I’m excited everyday to be in a room with smart people who come up with ideas that no one would have come up with on our own. I try to share what the vision is, the end goal and then the best thing I can do is get out of people’s way and let them figure out the best way to get to that goal.”
She said she has found listening to be a key to effective leadership.
“I don’t think there is any substitute for hard work and your reputation is one asset that must be ferociously protected. So that means being a good listener, keeping your word, acting with integrity and recognizing and fostering others’ talent,” said Willard. “I’m also a fan of informal interviews, spending time with someone you admire maybe going out to lunch to find out what makes them tick, sharing knowledge, learning from each other successful habits and tips. Everyone has an experience you can learn from and sometimes we can benefit from someone pointing out our blinds spots or gentle guidance at different points in our lives.”
She said the continued collective credit union struggle of how to find ways to stay relevant, compete while staying true to their core values has been what energizes her every day.
“Innovation is filling a need in the market that people haven’t articulated yet,” said Willard. “I think sometimes we as an industry think affinity is the same as profitability. Just because consumers like us doesn’t mean we continue to be profitable. We need to deliver relevant solutions/products, seize as many business opportunities to collaborate as we can and that sometimes means making tough decisions. Credit unions need to ask what should I stop doing to be more efficient and effective while staying true to those core principles they were founded on.”
Looking ahead she added that regulation, retaining top talent, and finding the right product/service mix to offer so members are engaged will continue to remain top credit union challenges.
“I think one thing every credit union can do a better job of is data analysis of who their members are, how are they behaving, what are the trends they can monetize? That’s an important step,” said Willard. “Emerging payments is also important. Basically it’s about rethinking the way credit unions do business and how consumers buy things in terms of sustaining engagement.”