While her career plans shifted from astronaut to oceanographer, Juli Anne Callis, president/CEO at National Institutes of Health Federal Credit Union never imagined her career trajectory would land in the credit union industry.

After she lost her 10-year-old son Adam to cardiomyopathy, a disease that causes inflammation of the heart muscle, Callis needed a change from the travel involved with her work heading the Navy’s exchange and commissary operations.

“When a recruiter told me about an open position at a credit union, my first thought was I can’t do that picketing stuff,” said Callis. “I’d worked in Citibank and for the U.S. Navy you’d think I’d connect the dots. Then I met Jean Yokum, CEO of Langley Federal Credit Union, and that was it for me. Her belief in what she was doing combined with my love for the military and at the time I needed to do something worthwhile and meaningful.”

She added that the career shift was particularly essential because her daughter, Lisa, who like the rest of the family, was figuring out how to live in a new reality.

“I had left the Navy and healed to the point where you decide to keep going on, but when I looked back, the most satisfying experiences in my life were those moments doing good for good reasons,” said Callis. “And Jean, the credit union mission, let me use my gifts and talent to do some good and help make a difference in people’s lives.”

An advocate of credit unions, she volunteered to be a part of setting up the CUNA Councils, which tapped into her love of consumer research and passion for design. While she was at KeyPoint Credit Union in Santa Clara, Calif., her husband, Charles, was also diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and the same year she was named chief operating officer, he got a heart transplant. It was her daughter later being diagnosed with the same disease that prompted the move back East and led her to NIH FCU.

“My daughter became a bio scientist to research what’s been killing our family, and I have a great respect for what NIH is doing,” said Callis. “This is where all the research is being done and that’s one of the main reasons we wanted to live in this area. It’s the best place to be because the disease can strike at any time.”

For Callis, “no” has always meant “go,” which has fueled her solutions-based approach.

“My philosophy of culture in any organization is based on a quote by Winston Churchill, ‘To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often,’” said Callis. “Whether with large or small groups it’s how to build unity, challenge and sustain the vision with all disparate groups. I think the continuity element is that we’re all different yet striving for the same goal–to improve any situation.”

She added that the concept of a status quo simply doesn’t exist.

“One of my heroes is Steve Jobs, and maybe it’s the Italian in me, but I’ve always been driven to create, not with a paint brush or music but to see things before they exist and leave a bread crumb trail for others to see it as well,” said Callis. “Transformational change can’t happen unless people believe there is a need for that change. It’s an unfreezing, so rather than everyone just nodding their head, we need to change awareness, and that’s often the trickiest part that isn’t given enough time. I believe in a culture of self-awareness to lead by focusing on strengths and helping others discover and identify their strengths. When you look at the staff, the organization here as it is today would not have been possible had it not transformed.”

Callis’ said it’s the teams of people that make up NIH FCU that she’s been most proud of. With an eye on building up, not tearing down employees, an executive mentoring program launched last year has helped develop future leaders through a buddy system that emphasizes collaboration and a cross-pollination and transfer of knowledge. Individuals selected must be outstanding in their positions, have at least a bachelor’s degree and express a desire to do more and a hunger to learn. Callis has likened the program to a directed study where everyone makes a contribution rather than a territorial push forward steamrolling over others.

“Our team here wakes up every day with enthusiasm to do their best and an attitude of ‘O.K. what can we tackle now as challenges present themselves?’” said Callis. “They understand that there is no such thing as a safe static environment. There’s a momentum of people here who embrace change and run with it. I love mentoring, helping others achieve their dreams, optimize their potential, that’s what’s super exciting.”

Since joining NIH FCU in 2009, the Rockville, Md.-based credit union has grown from some $400 million in assets to over $550 million. In addition, a shift to an occupational-based model rather than an employer model has resulted in the credit union expanding its charter to serve all biomedical and health care companies in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia. It’s now 44,000 members served range from doctors, nurses and biotech start-ups to NIH contractors. Given its time-crunched, tech savvy members, NIH FCU has gone from 5% to 90% Web-based. In addition, the credit union has expanded its offerings to include small business loans.

“Our members expect us to be at the forefront of technology and convenience. This is an amazing time of opportunity for credit unions. Not all bankers are bad, but we have opportunities they don’t have–unless the regulatory environment continues to where we can no longer truly operate,” said Callis. “I can understand how it got to this point, but fear is the enemy of innovation and prosperity. As an innovator and pragmatic optimist, it’s difficult to navigate the waters where the modest dreams for credit unions have to be dialed back a bit. There is no reason why this credit union, in the market we’re serving, couldn’t be a billion dollars in a few years. But even an optimist feels a shadow cast on innovation and growth in the current regulatory environment.”

Real challenges such as market compression and how to survive when costs continue to rise can be rather treacherous, but as someone who has literally jumped out of planes, Callis has never been one to be particularly risk adverse.

“There’s been a seismic shift in the financial services industry that has included credit unions,” said Callis. “We’re in the aftershock period and not sure how the land will settle or is going to look. The reality of surviving in such an environment is an exciting and challenging time.”

She added that the change in the competitive landscape the last few years could be to the credit union industry’s advantage.

“If you’re nimble, it gives you a market advantage,” said Callis. “In our local market, Chevy Chase Bank and Riggs Bank are gone. We not only got to hire great people but also made the most that we were a local player with local flavor. We’ve got to embrace emerging technology. We haven’t taken a mortgage application in a branch since we started using Mortgagebot, our business development team in outer markets have iPads and deliver everything through technology.” 

She added that the palpable grip of fear may be holding back the industry as a whole.

“There seems to be a lack of confidence in our ability to sustain and thrive in a changing environment,” said Callis. “Yet, there are people who still view America through the eyes of possibility and enthusiasm, so what’s wrong with us? Why can’t we see that and go out, get impediments out of the way and make it happen? The world is full of possibilities. The technology available today is phenomenal and that is a huge opportunity for financial services. If we as an industry can survive the regulatory environment, we could shoot for the moon and end up in the stars.”