T40B: Chris Wolgamott Tells Young Professionals to Speak Up
If Chris Wolgamott had his way, every young professional would make time to shake the hand of their CEO.
“It's an important relationship to develop. I think the less nervous you can feel around leadership, the more ideas and opinions you will feel comfortable sharing,” said the latest Trailblazer 40 Below honoree, who is a financial counselor at the $890 million Meritrust Credit Union in Wichita, Kan.
“So many young professionals don't feel they can have a voice and the easiest way is to get familiar with your leadership team,” he said. “Let them see you, get to know who you are and vice versa to build that confidence to speak up next time you have an idea or suggestion.”
Although naturally gregarious and curious about others, Wolgamott said he understands the fear that meeting others and networking presents.
“My approach is to encourage others with the hope that, even in some small way, I leave people better off than I found them,” he said. “Just try to see the good in people and don't be afraid to meet new people. We all have something to contribute. So it's about bringing out the best in others and encouraging each other to find our niche.”
He added the most common barrier to effective networking comes from the misperception that employees have nothing to contribute.
“You feel stupid, like everyone else is so much smarter. Why would they want to meet me,” he said. “But initiating conversation is a skill that only becomes less frightening when you practice and actually make the effort to do it.”
He admits he still struggles with over sharing and sometimes getting distracted while having a conversation.
“Try to let the other person lead as much as possible. Instead of asking what they do ask what are they working on,” Wolgamott said. “People are always excited to share their plans or projects. It gives them a chance to shine.”
It's something he feels so strongly about, as a member of the leadership committee of the Kansas Credit Union Association's young professional group CUNext, the team has been toying with the idea of hosting a networking event along the lines of speed dating sessions. It would give each person a chance to practice and prepare for future encounters with senior management, board members or even peers at conferences.
“What I've learned in working with others is that you don't have to be good at everything if you have a good team around you,” he said. “There are so many people I've met outside the industry and within such as The Cooperative Trust, our league's CUNext program and at Meritrust who are so very intelligent and talented. In terms of collaboration, if you can focus on what you're good at and find others who can fill those talent gaps, where each member of the team adds their own strengths and specialties, you'd be surprised at what can be accomplished.”
He added that he wished the industry as a whole would focus on delivering the basics as far as infrastructure and service.
“For some people innovation means always being different and first to market on everything,” Wolgamott said. “That isn't necessarily the case and we have to be careful not to forget to deliver the basics well first. Sometimes the danger in talking innovation is that you can try hard to be something that your credit union just simply is not. We have to be careful as we innovate that we don't sacrifice the basics needed to be mastered in the now for what we could be in the future.”
That carries over to developing and retaining top talent as well.
“It's a challenge we're all facing. A lot of young professionals don't see credit unions as a career as much as a job to get them to their next job or career,” he said. “The good news is this is a great industry. If we can get them in, get them involved, help provide opportunities to develop, grow and give them a voice, they'll stay.”
He speaks from experience. Wolgamott fell into credit unions while in college. BECU had just given him a car loan and happened to be in a job fair on campus. He cut class to fill out and return the application for an internship within the hour. He didn't get the internship in accounting he'd applied for, but he said BECU was so impressed with his speedy application, he got an internship in marketing instead.
The experience not only made him a credit union lifer but inspired him to switch his major from accounting to marketing. When he moved back to Kansas, he found his niche at Meritrust while fulfilling his childhood dreams.
“It's funny, I always wanted to be a teacher because I love interacting with people, being social and learning something new every day,” Wolgamott said. “Now in my current role as a financial counselor I get to do just that, not only on a one-on-one basis with members but also while teaching financial literacy classes as well. That win when someone realizes there is a workable solution or that aha moment of understanding is what drives and inspires me.”
He said he considers himself fortunate to be part of such a great team at Meritrust, which recognized and supported early on the need for launching a financial counseling program. The program has not only continued to grow to a point where it is now a department of two, but he said it has also helped Meritrust build its member and lending relationships.
“I think our credit union leadership took a risk on creating a financial counseling role as a way to provide an alternative to payday lending,” Wolgamott said. “We as an industry have to find those risks worth investing in and not be afraid to try and possibly fail. Mistakes happen daily, we can only figure out what went wrong and learn from them so we don't make the same ones. For those pitching ideas, don't be discouraged and don't take the first no as final. Keep working and refining it and searching for those people in the organization who will listen.”