Jelen Challenges Status Quo to Deliver Results
For Sean Jelen, president/CEO of the $197 million Tobyhanna Federal Credit Union in Scranton, Pa., the status quo simply doesn't exist.
“I’ve banned the phrase ‘we’ve always done it that way,’” the latest Trailblazer 40 Below said only half jokingly. “I believe in challenging the way we think about everything by examining why. Sometimes the reasons may still be valid, but taking that fresh look, breaking it down into pieces, that process gives us an opportunity to do more, to succeed or fail.”
With the consolidation of the credit union industry, Jelen said, the general cookie cutter approach to strategic planning of looking just three to five years out has to change.
“I’ve been in credit unions for eight years. There were 13,000 credit unions and now there are 6,500. The industry has to figure out how are we going to be around for the next 30 years? How do we prepare our organization for long-term relevance?” he said. “The business model has been around for over a hundred years, what can be done so it continues to be relevant? “
He added that consolidation brings opportunity. “When it's all said and done there will be a strong group of resilient credit unions left.”
Jelen welcomes innovation that separates credit unions from being plain-vanilla financial institutions, and adapts with the consumer pulse. He believes that every young professional should never miss the opportunity to change something.
“I empower my team to make decisions based on the information they have to fulfill and push our strategic vision forward. They’re each president of their business units and I try not to meddle too much or micromanage,” he said. “I don't want them to ever be afraid to fail. More is lost by indecision than a wrong decision. You’re better off as a leader making a really dumb decision than being stalled by fear, because at least if it's a bad decision you know what you did wrong and can change it.”
It's not just talk for Jelen. He made the move from banks and Wall Street to credit unions because he wanted to be able to make a difference. Since joining Tobyhanna three years ago, the credit union has grown from $150 million to more than $196 million in assets.
In addition, it has been recognized as a “Top Place to Work in Pennsylvania” and through its TobyTellers joined the ranks of a few credit unions nationwide that operate full service 24/7. The video tellers allow members to talk to a live remote teller who can then conduct financial transactions ranging from check cashing and account deposits to changing a PIN number.
“Why should members stick to 9-5 and work around our schedule to do their banking?” Jelen asked. “By this fall plans are to be a 100% electronic credit union where members no longer have to even come into the branch to close on their loans, deposit checks or open accounts. They bank the way they want, when it's most convenient for them.”
Having an open mind has been key for Jelen. In many ways, the credit union was holding itself back by operating as if it were a $30 million institution rather than the $150 million credit union it was when he joined, he said. After he arrived, gone was the idea of not wanting to compete with other credit unions or local banks, and everything from compliance, marketing, lending and culture were reviewed and strategically aligned with an eye on growth.
“What frustrates me the most is the myth that credit unions are a movement. We’re an industry and our success is not all tied in together. Each individual credit union's success is what makes our industry successful. With that mindset, we are much stronger as a whole. We are not this tiny closet industry and if we stop thinking we are small and holding ourselves back we would be much bigger,” Jelen said.
“I know a lot of credit industry leaders would disagree, but my concern is for my members, not whether I’m liked by other credit unions. I’m focused on ensuring Tobyhanna FCU is well run and offering the services our members want and need, not worrying about what other credit unions are doing.”
He points to the development of a strong talent pool as another challenge facing the industry. To stay relevant moving forward an investment in creating cultures that foster innovation, professional and personal growth opportunities will be vital, Jelen said.
Maintaining a positive work environment where everyone is challenged and engaged on a daily basis has been the impetus behind Tobyhanna FCU recruiting along the lines of finding the right culture fit.
“The same way putting a wrong nut on a machine will destroy it, the wrong personality or attitude can ruin the culture we’ve been building here,” he said. “Buy-in is the most important component in working toward the vision. If an individual has not bought into the culture and the vision of the organization then why be a part of the team?”
To stay connected and reinforce open communication, Jelen participates in monthly lunch and learn sessions composed of a mix of tellers, managers, back office and senior staff.
“We get a good mix in there and it's their opportunity to talk about anything,” said Jelen “All these different business units get together informally and I recommend every CEO make the time to see and talk to your staff on a regular basis. You learn a lot about what's going on with your members and it breaks down the CEO fear factor. We are a team of 65 people at the end of the day working together to deliver our best for members, potential members and each other.”