Tenacious, energetic and adventurous are just some of the adjectives that have been used to describe Tansley Stearns, impact director at Filene Research Institute.
As someone who truly believes in doing what you love and working to make people’s lives better, the latest Trailblazer 40 Below feels like she has been living the dream since her start in the credit union industry.
“My parents were longtime credit union members so I knew about them, but I stumbled into a credit union marketing job at BestSource Credit Union out of college,” said Stearns. “It was a perfect fit in terms of using my creativity, writing skills, and I really just fell in love with the mission to improve members’ financial situations. That was it for me. I’m a credit union junkie. I get to go to bed at night feeling good about being a part of an industry where I can make a positive difference every day. Now with Filene, it’s not just for that one organization but in credit unions across the United States and Canada.”
She added that over the 14 years she’s been in credit union land she’s learned the value in stretching beyond limits of titles.
“As my journey began, I was lucky that my CEO at the time challenged me to think beyond marketing, and I was resistant at first,” said Stearns. “He would talk about other opportunities like the vice president of sales and service role, and I just said no thanks, hung up and that was it.”
When he brought it up again a month later asking her to really consider it, she began to seriously think about it and has been grateful ever since.
“He was asking me to stretch beyond the scope of my original role, and I realized that it was just the ‘official’ title change that was hard for me to accept not the responsibilities,” said Stearns. “At the time I had already made a foray into operations while still in marketing so instinctively I knew it was the right move I just had to get out of my own way. I’d invite everyone to take a chance to do something different, just dig into a new area or do something that no one else wants to tackle and get that experience. It is such a gift to learn something new and be open to change.”
The idea of stretching beyond limitations applies to credit union cultures and environments as well, particularly when it comes to innovation.
“For me innovation is grounded in solving problems for people,” said Stearns. “I don’t think in credit unions innovation makes sense unless it’s helping make lives faster, simpler, better or even more fun. Most credit unions tend to run lean, and it’s easy to get lost in processes they’ve lived with a long time. It’s so important to stop and go out into the lobby to remember what members are experiencing. Discovering and identifying where those pain points are, that is where the best innovation is rooted.”
She added that collaboration and investing in the future of younger members are risks worth taking.
“We as an industry have to be willing to try new things. I’ve been responsible for compliance, and I know how nervous we can get as financial institutions are highly regulated organizations but we can’t stop trying,” said Stearns. “Investing in younger members means building not only future members but young adult board members and employees as well. Young members won’t come unless they see representation within the organization.”
She said a diversity of thought and perspective is key if credit unions want to create a culture of innovation. That starts with hiring talent that play to different strengths.
“It’s not easy because human nature is to be drawn to people like us, but surrounding yourself with people who are talented in the areas where you may have gaps not only provides the opportunity to stretch but can also help you get better at those things you need to improve upon,” said Stearns. “The lens of that diverse team will also help filter and get better ideas off the ground.”
She doesn’t claim to have all the answers but feels excited about what the future as the time has never been better for credit unions to gain market share.
“Consumers are looking for transparent, trustworthy financial institutions as alternatives to banks, so the challenge is on credit unions to leverage this moment in time,” said Stearns. “I think the risk is believing that everyone sees credit unions as the clear choice, the way we, who are so passionate, do. It is the responsibility of each credit union and the movement to make sure consumers have a full awareness of all that credit unions can do.”
She added that it’s not about just competing against banks or other players.
“I travel a lot these days whenever I’m on an airplane and tell someone what I do, 90% of the time they say they’ve heard of credit unions but ask, ‘What are they exactly?’ Or they say, ‘I think I had a savings account there.’ Credit unions have a wonderful story to tell, but I do think one of the gaps is collaboration. We have to get to a point where we maybe give up on focusing on a message that precisely meets what each credit union individually wants and instead compromise on that for the greater good. To me, all credit unions benefit if every passenger on an airplane knows exactly what credit unions are, what they do and how they are relevant to their lives.”
Rather than trying to be everything, credit unions should make time to think about long-term strategy.
“Find out what your members need and want and don’t be afraid to ask what should we stop doing,” said Stearns. “Why not focus on what we’re best at, forget everything else and ask are we strong enough on execution? It’s the little things that make a difference. Take the time to go through all the processes, find the pain points and fix them.”