An inquisitive nature and pursuit of answers to the simple question “why?” has helped lead Heather Lally, vice president of operations at Alliant Credit Union, to her dream job.
“I had dreams of being a lawyer when I was younger,” said the latest Trailblazer 40 Below, who didn’t know much about credit unions when she first joined the industry. “I ask why a lot and have always liked to dissect a situation and figure out the best possible solution. It’s not what I thought I’d be doing, but I changed paths and have never been happier. I get to do what I love while helping make a real difference in people’s financial lives.”
She added that for the past 15 years at the $8.2 billion Chicago-based credit union, it’s the challenges she enjoys most.
“For me, ‘no’ or ‘can’t’ are simply unacceptable,” said Lally. “I truly believe every obstacle can be overcome. I don’t like to take no for an answer. If it makes sense and you have the goal of doing what’s right for the members or employees, then we push through. No matter how hard or challenging we have to do what is right. That is what motivates me.”
Ironically time has proven to be Lally’s greatest challenge.
“I always feel like there is always such room for improvement, that there just isn’t enough time in the day,” joked Lally. “For me, true innovation is not necessarily inventing something new but rather improving upon a process so that it’s more efficient and makes life easier or better for members and employees alike.”
For example, an internal service level agreement task force, which focuses on key services each department needs to provide other departments and Alliant members, meets bi-weekly to examine any issue, system or process that creates an error or disruption in service and it would be improved. According the Lally, it’s part of the ever evolving Alliant culture and goes back to the drive to deliver the best member service experience.
“It comes back to understanding our vision and mission so when you strive for the best possible outcome, you simply do what’s right and not focus on the obstacle,” said Lally. “We all have the same goal, to make changes that improve the member experience. That focus, in an open forum, where everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas, has been the catalyst in helping to deliver creative solutions.”
As a Six Sigma Black Belt, one of Lally’s strengths has not only been to keep asking why until the root cause is discovered but to encourage others to do the same as making improvements has to be a continuous effort.
“To remain relevant to our members it sounds simple: deliver a great value experience. Yet, to do accomplish that, we have to keep reinventing ourselves,” said Lally. “The competition has been changing to include not just banks but others, including Walmart, PayPal, or Google Wallet. We have to find ways we can compete or identify and make the most of opportunities to partner and make sure we’re providing the service members want and expect.”
She said part of that means not only embracing technology but also providing fast service and delivering the same experience across all channels, whether in the branch, banking online or on the phone, being consistent is key.
“We have to continue to focus on making it easier for members to conduct business with us,” said Lally. “Every credit union should be asking what is our core purpose, why do we exist and what’s our competitive advantage? Why should consumers choose us over the competition?”
She added that the answers should play to each credit union’s strengths rather than attempting to be everything to everyone.
“With our people helping people philosophy we’re supposed to be a caring organization, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also emphasize performance accountability,” said Lally. “We can and should measure results. We are only as good as the people we have in the industry so employee engagement and accountability is huge. So it’s not only hiring for the right fit for our culture but making sure everyone has the tools they need to do the job right, setting clear expectations, and having a laser focus on who we want to be as an organization and supporting that.”
For Lally, it starts with open conversations, encouraging and listening to feedback and trusting peers and employees.
“I think to be an effective leader you have to be someone who inspires and motivates others by doing,” she said. “I like to model what I expect, so I jump in and work alongside the team. I see my role as a partner and a coach. I trust my employees. We have such a great team here and they are empowered, so they can make those decisions that will best serve the members and improve the member experience. We all have different strengths and with open, transparent communication we then partner to deliver the best solutions.”
She added that with change as the only constant, it’s important to keep learning and growing.
“We have to always give our best, ask why, never stop learning, really embrace change and have fun,” said Lally. “There’s a lot to be excited about the future. Look what we get to be a part of. We can’t be effective if we’re not engaged and don’t believe in what we’re doing. Our first priority is our members. So we need to have that mindset of adapting and embracing change to discover new opportunities. We can celebrate our successes along the way but we’re never done, let’s see what else we can improve or how we can become even more efficient to provide an even better member experience.”