Growing up in San Francisco, there was never any doubt that Donna Bland would have a career in the financial industry.
“I always knew it. I loved currency and exchange and I remember telling my mother as a child I wanted to be the secretary of Treasury like on the dollar bill,” said the president/CEO of $8.1 billion Golden 1 Credit Union and the latest Women to Watch honoree. “We never had much money, so living in San Francisco I was always intrigued by and loved the financial industry.”
Growing up without a lot of means, Bland recognized early on to make her dreams a reality she would have to work hard, be goal oriented and driven.
“My family is my inspiration and what I’ve learned is you’ve got to take control of your life, constantly learn and not rely on others or wait for luck to make things happen,” said Bland.
“Take responsibility, ownership, have a plan, focus on doing your best in your current position and take on new responsibilities when the opportunity presents itself,” she said. “Don't wait for the title. If you take control of your life, in the end you’ll be more satisfied.”
Bland got her first job at age 13 and began working as a bank teller while earning her degree in accounting. She later become a certified public accountant at global tax, audit and advisory firm KPMG.
A year into landing at KPMG, Bland's desire to buy a car led to her first experience with a credit union. While a community bank had passed on her business, it was a credit union auto loan that helped her pick up the keys to her first car.
“It was my first experience of how credit unions are there for the average, more common person. It was more about who I was and my potential,” said Bland, who years later in 1994 would make the transition to actually working in the credit union industry accepting a position at Sacramento, Calif.-based Golden 1.
She got hooked by the credit union difference in core values and structure and never looked back.
“Knowing Golden 1 is making a positive difference in people's lives, that allows me to feel good about the work we are doing,” she said.
A believer that good ideas come from everywhere, she has led the charge to foster an open culture of trust and takes seriously the responsibility of ensuring her 1,400 employees continue to develop, doing meaningful work they love.
Employee engagement has been key and to give staffers a forum for speaking up, Bland hosts annual leadership meetings for all Golden 1 managers and multiple “Lunch and Learn” events that provide an opportunity for all employees to ask questions and present their ideas.
Ideas can also be shared via an internal blog. In addition, to help the credit union better understand consumer wants, a next generation committee has been created as a way to leverage the talent and diversity of Golden 1's employees from the front lines to IT.
To Bland, the greatest challenges of leadership include how to identify and understand the complexity of a new generation of talent, how to maximize the value of leaders across all generations, and how to embrace a new generation's values in the workplace so that they can thrive.
“As leaders we need to listen, be adaptable, and open to learning,” said Bland. “In our organization we are very clear that we all share and work toward the same goal and mission. Perceived silos can corrupt an organization, so if you focus and work toward the common goal then you welcome the input and different ideas on how to get there together.”
It boils down to having trust in those hired and embracing change. “I always have an eye on the future, competitors, how to do things better and learn from what others are doing, making sure we stay relevant in the long term not just today,” said Bland.
“I have high expectations and believe everyone has value. If you can't trust your employees then they shouldn't be there, because they cannot contribute. To have a culture of innovation, it is every employee's responsibility to identify and share what can be improved whether a process, product or service while staying focused on our mission,” she said.
“I always ask and it's amazing what I’ve learned just talking to employees in the elevator, at the branch or during Golden 1 University, where I meet with up-and-coming leaders.”
To identify and resolve real systemic issues credit unions can't afford to simply focus on one small innovation at a time. She also believes, in terms of relevance, there is still work to be done industry-wide to educate consumers about the credit union difference. Embracing its identity as a credit union has been an ongoing transition at The Golden 1 and Bland couldn't be prouder of the progress that has been made.
“For us it's important as an organization to share with consumers that we are not a bank and we shouldn't pretend to be,” she said. “Bank is a verb, but we are proud and committed to our identity as a credit union. As an industry we believe in bettering society so we need to make sure we deliver on that promise.
“We thrive and remain relevant as an industry moving forward not by being like a bank, but as a better alternative in all aspects from community interactions, value proposition of products and services, to how we treat our employees.”
Bland added that the very existence of the industry has been based on consumer need.
“Our relevance is lost if we don't understand that need and consumers don't understand the difference between a credit union and a bank,” the Golden 1 CEO said. “They got a strong education with Bank Transfer Day and it helped with awareness but we have to keep the momentum going.”
In addition to focusing on differentiation and how to be the better banking alternative, she also would like to see the industry expand its scope of “the competition.”
“When you ask me about the competition, the answer is it depends, is it in terms of products and services, market share, recruiting, the online market, etc.,” Bland said. “The players change and there's not just one competitive field but rather, like the Olympics, there are many different races competing at the same time.”