Women to Watch: Shari Storm Shares Leadership Lessons
For Shari Storm, senior vice president at Verity Credit Union, periodically applying and interviewing for other jobs has helped reinforce that she is exactly where she belongs.
“A mentor I always admired told me a long time ago to interview for other jobs every six months,” said Storm, who is also the author of Motherhood is the New MBA.
“Not only as a way to practice interviewing because when you go for that big job you really want, it shouldn’t be the first interview you’ve done in 10 years, but you’re also always able to articulate your market value. The most important reason though is if you do get an offer, by deciding to turn it down you recommit yourself to your current job. Sometimes people stay in a job just because they are either too lazy, scared or nervous to try to do something else. I think it’s really pertinent in the credit union industry where sometimes people stay for decades. If it’s passion keeping them there great but if they are staying because they don’t want to step outside their comfort zone it’s not fair to them, the credit union or the industry as a whole.”
As someone who has always embraced change or try things, she may not necessarily be good at, the latest individual to be recognized by Credit Union Times as a Woman to Watch tends to take life and challenges as they come.
“Being a working mom of three young daughters, at this stage of my life, my basic tenet is that I start my day with a cup of coffee; I end my day with a glass of wine and hope that everything works out in between,” said Storm.
She almost wasn’t a part of the industry. When a friend suggested she go for a job at the Seattle-based Verity CU, Storm thought a career in the financial industry sounded boring.
“She convinced me to go, and I fell in love with everyone on the executive team. They were interesting, nice and smart so you could say I joined credit unions not for the industry but for the people,” said Storm. “I also thought the way our CEO Bill Hayes conducted the interview where he sat me down to work on a problem the credit union was challenged with was a brilliant way to do an interview and get to really know one another.”
By the time Storm left, she was completely sold on Verity and paid to put together a video of her 72 television appearances during a stint in public relations. She went in the next day, handed the video to Hayes and said, “Here is some work I’ve done in PR.” Now every time Storm celebrates an anniversary or milestone at the over $397 million credit union, Hayes mentions how she is the only person who’d ever given him a video.
“I’m hardwired in sales,” said Storm. “I don’t think ever dreamt about a certain career. I know I always been drawn to jobs where I can make an impact and have creative license to do unusual things. The fact that we here jumped into social media way before everyone is just one of the many ways I can flex my creative muscles here and do things out of the ordinary.”
She added that sales has often gotten a bum rap and helps make a difference in getting ideas off the shelf and into the market.
“You need someone on your team who can paint that picture, overcome objections and bring people along because you have to have that buy-in from not just the CEO and executive team but the board, tellers, IT department, members–everyone–or that idea will just die,” said Storm. “Always remember to unfold the story slowly. I’ve learned if you drop a new idea saying, ‘Here you go, what do you think?’ it never works. You’ve got to set the stage, bring it along slowly, then listen, get feedback and be prepared to adjust course. Everyone likes their own idea best, so the more you can incorporate those ideas into the one big idea there will be more buy-in.”
That sense of transparency and encouraging the flow of information and ideas has been a cornerstone of Storm’s approach to leadership.
“I try to be fair and forthright. I like to change things up to avoid complacency,” said Storm. “The two talents I am most proud of is my ability to hire and keep really good people and my ability to spot trends. Innovation has a dose of creativity but equal measures of profitability. You can’t embrace a new idea just because it’s cool and fun, there has to be a good business reason for doing it. I think the best innovators have creativity, good business acumen and are very persuasive.”
Some of the top three initiatives she’s been most proud of at Verity exemplify how small changes can make a big impact. The first was some 10 years ago when Storm convinced everyone to use Outlook to schedule meetings rather than having to coordinate and book meeting rooms through the receptionist. It was a simple change that saved time and helped foster greater collaboration. The second initiative of creating a team of loan modification specialists who looked over members’ financials, sources of income to provide a deep, detailed cash flow analysis, helped Verity stay ahead of the curve when the economy started to crash.
“With the old model people would call up, say they can’t make their payment, we’d ask what can you afford and the consumer, who didn’t really know their actual cash flow situation, would just give us a number and we’d try to make it work but everyone would be frustrated,” said Storm. “Now the counselor figures out the real situation and we know this person has $700 a month to pay their mortgage and go from there for the loan modification. So rather than saying here are our rules, play by them, since 2010 this approach has resulted in millions of dollars in loans under management and kept hundreds of members in their homes.”
The third was Verity Mom, the initiative that focused on moms to bring in the whole family, has helped lower the age of its membership. In three years since the launch, the average age of new members has dropped from 39 to 36 years old.
She added that relevance remains key to the industry thriving. According to Storm, some of the questions that need to be asked include are we sure we know what consumers want-both today and tomorrow? How do we step outside the great echo chamber that our industry often is and how do we add diversity to our board of directors?
“I do think the credit union industry can benefit by infusing our volunteer board of directors with new perspectives. I respect and value the wisdom that board members with long tenure bring to our credit unions. I also believe we need to compliment that wisdom with a fresh understanding of today’s environment,” said Storm.
She added that the solution is more nuanced than simply getting some young people on the board. A few suggestions for board recruitment include searching for individuals with the following abilities:
- Can discuss the benefits of the new Windows Phone over the Android and the iPhone for at least 10 minutes. Extra points if they use the term Jelly Bean in the conversation.
- Uses PayPal, Serve or Venmo to pay a roommate.
- Has used or has donated to KickStarter, Indigogo or Slated to fund a project.
- Knows the difference between Reddit, Tumblr, 4chan and 9gag.
- Uses the words YOLO or cray cray in a sentence without sounding embarrassed.
“It’s challenging to compete in today’s market place. It’s tough to see some of your members struggling to meet their obligations,” said Storm. “Our number one top challenge today is how to grow our loan portfolio. Second is determining what our business model will look like three to five years from now. Changes are coming at us rapidly and we need to sort out what the winning strategy is. Lastly, I think a major challenge is preserving the essence of credit unions, that thing that sets us apart from other financial options. I worry that we might lose sight of that while we fight for market share.”