Fortunate is the word Tamara Langton, vice president of business transformation at the $2.2 billion Coastal Federal Credit Union, said sums up her leadership journey so far.
“I think if someone looked at my career in retrospect it may look planned, but mostly it’s been leaps of faith that were sponsored by really good mentors,” said the latest Women to Watch honoree.
Langton wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her degrees in mathematics and business administration, but said she had an opportunity early on to work for a public accounting firm. Always one to explore, Langton, despite not having an accounting degree, jumped at the chance.
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“It ended up being a good fit for me because the firm wanted to build a team of young business professionals with a variety of backgrounds, and I had the opportunity to be exposed to working with different industry groups,” she said.
Her rotation with a credit union-specific group would lead not only to getting her CPA but also ultimately finding her industry niche.
“I’ve always tried to keep an open mind when it comes to opportunity and not limit myself to some sort of predetermined path, so when opportunities come I tend to make a change if it makes sense,” Langton said. “It was inspiring how passionate both the firm and the credit union staff were about running a business so continually focused on how to better serve their members. It was something I could get on board with.”
She added that she had always known of credit unions and the good they do from personal experience. Her father was a teacher and longtime credit union member. In the 1970s, when his school district went through a long strike and the teachers didn’t get paid for months on end, it was the credit union that kept her family and all those teachers’ families afloat.
“I know the gratitude our family had and it's why my dad has always encouraged my sister and I to always keep an account with a credit union,” said Langton, who landed a job at a fairly large Wisconsin credit union before making a move to the Raleigh-based Coastal FCU as controller. “It was a lateral move at a larger credit union in a different region of the country, and turned out to be a perfect fit at the right time.”
Drawing inspiration and energy from being a part of the Coastal FCU team, she added there’s simply no greater feeling than helping to make a difference for members and the credit union alike. In her current role, she led an extensive search for a new core processing system and went through a request-for-proposal process that would address the organization’s strategic objectives and core processing needs. She now oversees the implementation of the new system, which also includes a document imaging, new loan originination account opening system, reporting system and a member relationship system. She said the effort to produce, implement and drive transformational programs across the organization will help streamline the credit union’s operational infrastructure and processes.
“At the beginning of the core conversion we got together and defined our strategic objectives. One key objective was that we were going to allow the conversion to change us and not make the new system match our old system,” Langton said. “I think of innovation as idea generation with no boundaries, and collaboration is one of the more powerful tools in generating ideas, refining it to deliver a unique customized solution.”
One of the challenges for any leader today continues to be the fast pace of technology, staying informed and determining which new technology is needed to stay competitive.
“No one wants to be the next Blockbuster Video,” Langton said. “We have to be relevant not just in products and services, but in the delivery channels we provide. We still watch movies but not from the local video store. It’s important to identify the pain points and develop solutions that address them.”
In addition, she said the constantly growing number of competitive pressures go beyond what the bank down the street is doing and now includes everything from technology and security risks to consumer confidence, regulatory challenges and players outside the financial industry.
“I think credit unions have to remain vigilant in the fight against taxation and continue to find ways to band together in areas requiring resources that may not otherwise be possible without economy of scale. We’ve got to publicize the credit union difference and the importance of consumer choice,” Langton said. “A large number of consumers still don’t know what credit unions are and how we are different. We’ve got to have a voice, promote the value of being a cooperative, and continue to get our message out there.”
She added that complacency is another challenge.
“If we don’t recognize and confront complacency, it can start to undo some of the good done when we were driving hard,” she said. “Our CEO gave me the best career advice by encouraging me to be willing to step outside my comfort zone. It’s how I ended up in my current role. After being on the accounting and finance side for 17 years, I ventured into business transformation, getting into operational and technical issues were outside my expertise and my comfort zone, but the opportunity has made me a well rounded professional. It’s one of the best choices I ever made and it was a risk worth taking.”
She added that it’s important to never miss an opportunity to have a voice and always look forward.
“I think it’s important to articulate and explain your point of view while staying willing and open to being persuaded by different perspectives,” Langton said. “Every leader should be training the person who will take over for them. I think it not only keeps your top talent motivated but it also ensures the organization is prepared for change, whether planned or unplanned."