April Clobes, executive vice president/chief operating officer at Michigan State University Federal Credit Union, has never set out to make the seemingly impossible possible. She’s just relentless when it comes to finding solutions.
“If you don’t enjoy coming to work everyday then you need to be doing something else,” said Clobes, of her personal philosophy.
That has helped the latest Credit Union Times Woman to Watch recipient make the most of the opportunities at the East Lansing, Mich.-based $2.3 billion credit union. Since joining the MSUFCU team in 1996 as a marketing specialist, she headed up a newly formed e-commerce department in 2001, which grew into two separate e-commerce and e-services departments encompassing a variety of internal and external electronic platforms. She then took on the additional role of vice president of marketing in 2009, executive vice president in 2010, and was promoted to her current role in 2011.
“When I was 20, I had no idea or plans to be doing what I’m doing,” said Clobes. “I had a background in marketing, advertising and loved being creative. The turning point for me has been how what we do truly helps people. We make all our decisions based on whether it’s right for the member or the staff. So I get to be creative as a part of an organization that tries to find solutions to common challenges in our daily lives.”
With a strong work ethic developed at an early age, she added that she gets a thrill from finding a way to improve anything from processes to services.
“I always say yes,” joked Clobes. “There is always a way, it’s just a matter of figuring it out then getting things done. Innovation is not just doing the latest and greatest thing. It has to make sense so it can be just trying to improve upon something existing.”
For example, MSU FCU expanded its electronic services with a mobile app and an updated mobile website created in-house. Using the new app, members can do everything from account transactions and depositing checks via e-deposit for mobile to finding ATMs, current rates and connecting with MSUFCU staffers.
“A mobile app and a mobile-optimized website isn’t exactly new, but we did it based on features our members wanted and needed so that’s what makes it innovative,” said Clobes. “We are always striving to find new ways to better serve our members. We really believe that what we’re doing makes a world of difference in people’s lives and are confident in what we can accomplish. At the end of the day, we are not operating on people and no one is dying, so why not try to fix something and give it a whirl.”
That doesn’t mean change isn’t scary. But ultimately, for Clobes, it boils down to believing and trusting in your staff to do their jobs well. The result at MSU FCU has helped foster an environment where sharing ideas and implementing change are encouraged. As a leader she is always on the watch for entropy, which she views as the greatest threat to an organization.
“We strive to create a great work environment, but if you don’t care or are no longer passionate about what you’re doing, then it’s not a right fit and it can deteriorate the experience for others on the team,” said Clobes.
She added that an effective leader is essentially a mentor, whose ultimate goal is to guide and help others to be the best they can be.
“I love working with the staff, providing them with the resources, personal mentorship, and opportunities to achieve their personal and professional goals. It’s about helping everyone succeed as well. It’s rewarding to see how it makes for a happier, more engaged staff. I do expect a lot out of people because I know they can do it. What I’ve found when you’re thinking about how can you make the most of all the skills and talent of your staff, they will do their best to exceed those high expectations.”
That compassion and caring for others has been the cornerstone of her leadership style.
“Everyday is a job interview,” said Clobes. “Sometimes when you’ve been with an organization for a while you get comfortable, stop caring and just do the job. The same way when you first start you give 150% to get noticed, that has to be sustained every day if you want to be a part of the next big opportunity or project. So the same people you’ve been working alongside, in the future one of your peers could be your boss or heading a new project. What have they observed or what’s their experience been with you? People talk so make every moment spent count. Paperwork can wait, people matter so be respectful and do your best everyday.”
A nurturer of talent, Clobes’ willingness to share knowledge, advice and resources with anyone who’s interested, has extended beyond the walls of MSU FCU to include other credit unions and organizations throughout the community. With an ever growing and changing competitive landscape credit unions can’t afford to rest. At MSU FCU a competition committee was created a few years ago to evaluate, research, report and help the credit union be aware of the competitive shifts.
“I think in terms of relevance, we as an industry haven’t told our story enough as to why we are different and the better alternative,” said Clobes. “One of the biggest myths out there besides consumers thinking they can’t join a credit union, is that credit unions aren’t good corporate citizens because they don’t pay taxes. That’s why it’s so important to share our story and have consumers understand our philanthropy in the communities we serve, the financial education we provide, how much money we can save them, all the good we do simply because it’s how we are structured. We have to keep innovating and thinking of ways to improve. Do we want to be Blackberry or Apple? We have to worry about and be aware of change, if we don’t, then we fall down because our members will go somewhere else.”