W2W: CEO Christine Blake Returns Home to Her Roots
Who says you can never go home?
When Christine Blake, president/CEO at Cardinal Community Credit Union, moved from Washington, D.C., back to her home state she returned to the organization that introduced her to the credit union industry.
“My parents opened an account here when I was young. In college I worked as a teller during the summers and got my first car loan here,” said the latest Women to Watch honoree, CEO of the $171 million Mentor, Ohio-based credit union. “At the time I didn’t expect to be at Cardinal, but I believe every challenge, my whole life, has contributed to building the skill set of leading this organization. I can’t think of a better place than where I began my financial experience.”
She has never lost sight of the financial empowerment that the credit union movement can provide to real people, at all ages, and all walks of life. That first car loan meant so much and has been something she never forgot.
“It is a great privilege to know that I can give those opportunities to our members, the same that I received when I was young,” said Blake.
A CPA by education, Blake has always had an affinity for the field of finance and the credit union philosophy has satisfied her drive to make a real difference in people’s lives.
“An organization is only as good as its team, I encourage our staff to exceed member expectations and that fuels our energy and drive,” said Blake. “I have a true passion for the credit union and its success, and that passion and energy is contagious. I love what I do for the members and the staff. Managing change is managing resistance. To get the buy in and enthusiasm everyone has to have a sense of ownership in managing that change. Our culture is continually evolving, and our team can see the change building and the value of what they do in the community. They are a part of it, understand the purpose, and share in the success.”
A believer in open communication and leading by example, Blake added that true leadership has its basis in honesty and courage.
“You cannot be afraid to take risks because nothing great can happen if you don’t have the courage to get things wrong, experience a setback or failure,” said Blake. “If you look at those organizations or people who are successful, on average they have had more failures. It’s not easy but you have to keep trying. Your best idea might not work but you regroup and come back with something else.”
To ensure engagement across the organization, open brainstorming meetings are held.
“No idea is ignorant because in discussing it, someone else may play off that idea as part of some other solution,” said Blake. “I may be in charge but I don’t believe I’m smarter than anyone else. To be an effective leader means listening. It may take longer and open to a lot of discussion but it helps everyone pull together as a team when that final decision is made. I think innovation I think Steve Jobs, he is extraordinary. We’re not on the same scale, however as we listen to our members, draw on our experiences and develop those products and services that are right for our members, that’s innovation.”
One of the many initiatives she’s proud of has been the experience team. Blake selects six staffers who focus on improving the member experience across all touch points. The team designs and implements their ideas for six months before passing the torch to another six members selected by them.
“The best ideas don’t necessarily need a big expense component,” said Blake. “The main mission is they do with it what they will. It can be as simple as providing carnations on Mother’s Day or providing water bottles to members on Black Friday. What’s fresh is the team takes on a different life each time.”
For Blake, constantly challenging the status quo is a way of life.
“Our biggest challenge as an industry is complacency. Doing what is adequate or has always been done without reevaluating the value of what we do,” said Blake.
“The competition is not just banks, it’s Walmart, Isis, Google and it’s much different today as payment systems evolve. The build it and they will come is not enough.”
It’s about earning that audience with consumers rather than expecting it.
“We live and breathe the credit union philosophy, therefore we assume everyone else knows it as well. We’ve got to tell our story. Ask questions like, why should anyone pay attention to us? Why should a consumer join a credit union? Why do credit unions matter?”
She added that the credit union movement is very progressive but few realize it because others have been defining the credit union community.
“We need to do a better job at the basics of answering the consumer question, ‘what’s in it for me,’” said Blake. “Credit unions are worth being excited about. Every day we have to get the message out about our value. At the same time, we continue to focus on our SEG groups, they are our foundation.”
Given the economic challenges faced in the Greater Cleveland region, her concern for the area’s long-term health and vitality, has led to championing initiatives that deliver positive change and growth.
The results-oriented culture, has helped position Cardinal as a community leader through its strong visible commitment to philanthropy and education, especially in the area of financial literacy. Blake and her team have forged partnerships with area schools and colleges, and installed volunteer teaching staff within local institutions to help foster greater financial independence among residents. In addition to being viewed as a local partner and resource, the credit unions branches themselves serve as community centers for educational opportunities.
“Leaders without passion are not leaders,” said Blake. “Passion drives all and you can’t inspire others without it. I feel privileged to be a positive influence and believe in our organization. If you follow your passion and want to be a CEO then consider working to build your credentials through education and experience.”