For Debra I. Da Costa, who as marketing vice president has been defining and delivering global marketing strategies at the $3.8 billion United Nations Federal Credit Union for more than 13 years, every day provides a new chance to improve and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There’s always something you can improve upon and that’s useful in your personal life as well,” said the latest Women to Watch honoree. “I always go home feeling I could have done more. And that’s why every morning I make a silent commitment to find a way to do it better than yesterday, whether it’s working smarter or having more empathy, it’s something I’ll continue doing until I take my last breath.”
Da Costa, who recently left UNFCU, says working at the Long Island City, N.Y.-based credit union has been a chance of a lifetime and an experience she will treasure as she makes plans for her next adventure.
“When I entered college I wanted to be a biomedical engineer, but I am a people person and being in a lab all day would’ve been the death of me,” said Da Costa. “Although marketing may seem like a huge leap, it isn’t, as both use analytical, problem-solving skills and creativity. For me, marketing begins and ends with data, the creativity gets sprinkled in. So as much as a biomedical engineer and marketer may seem worlds apart, they use some of the same skill sets so it’s not that farfetched.”
She added that she had an incredible mentor who constantly encouraged her to look to the next goal or challenge.
“She’d always tell me to think of the possibilities and to think big. She’d check in on me monthly to find out exactly where I was and what was the next goal I wanted to attain,” said Da Costa. “I learned to be true to myself and always looked to even bigger challenges. It’s definitely one of the reasons why I accepted the position at UNFCU, the opportunity to do marketing on a global instead of just a national level.”
Her mentor has become a really good friend and the experience over the years has helped shape Da Costa’s own leadership and communication style.
“To develop others’ capabilities to contribute fully to an organization’s success and see how people blossom into fantastic leaders in their own right, that is the most fulfilling thing for me,” said Da Costa. “Leadership is about giving others the freedom to do something on their own and sometimes fail. Often you may be a bit cautious about letting individuals make their own mistakes or you want them to do it right the first time. But a really good leader is a coach and collaborator who gives that freedom to learn. Be on the sidelines cheer them on and when their knee is wrapped with ice give them advice, share your experiences of when you failed and how you were able to overcome obstacles. They don’t have to necessarily take the same path you did but if you do not provide them with opportunities to learn from their own mistakes, how can they blossom into leaders themselves? “
She added that flexibility is essential to effective leadership.
“I’m quite direct in my communication style, but people are the most important thing to me, and throughout the years I’ve tried to master as many leadership styles as I can to allow me to flex my style as people or situations dictate,” said Da Costa. “I try to focus on strengths. It’s so rewarding to be able to build someone up. It’s easy to crush confidence and ego but more difficult to build someone’s confidence in a positive way by giving them the opportunity and having the trust and belief that they can be successful.”
Given how quickly the marketplace changes, she said today’s leaders must be more nimble and pivot to manage and identify shifts and opportunities.
“To me innovation is doing something different. Doing the same thing better is improvement not innovation. It’s about connecting the dots. Having the ability to see the greater, bigger picture and identifying and connecting the tiny details to get there and do it differently,” said Da Costa. “Those who are successful at innovation have the ability to see the bigger picture and I think that is critical. I do feel credit unions are sometimes behind. You’d think because credit unions compared to commercial banks are smaller that they would be more agile, yet often we can be less so because there’s such a focus on the day-to-day operations and often we are too procedural in nature rather than being able to quickly discern gaps, look at past, present and future contexts and quickly go to market to meet members’ needs.”
Da Costa added that looking ahead, talent management and diversity are critical to helping credit unions stay relevant.
“When it comes to attracting great and younger talent, banks do that really well. My fear is when I look at credit unions, the industry is getting older, not just members but the staff,” Da Costa said. “If we can recruit, develop and retain younger talent on the board, staff and also at the membership level it benefits not only the individual institution but the industry.”
As far as the often touted statistic that there aren’t enough women executives at top levels, she agrees but says there’s a bigger issue.
“Should there be more women at top levels? Yes, there should be, but for me, it’s no longer about women executives but having more diversity and multiculturalism at the top,” said Da Costa. “While industry experience, insight, and expertise are critical, an equally important aspect is the wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives that individuals bring to work every day.
"By harnessing that collective varied assortment of backgrounds, an organization can and will benefit from the greater insight into the needs of its customer base and be better equipped to develop innovative solutions to help deliver exceptional value. It also helps ensure that the diversity is not just at the bottom of the pyramid but at the top as well where the decisions are being made. Rather than just talking about having more women executives, we need to focus on having a greater balance of diversity and multiculturalism at all levels of the organization.”