15 Leaders. 3 Questions. Insights For All.

Credit union leaders celebrate International Women’s Day with working tips, career lessons, and legacy desires.

 
 

International Women's Day is recognized every year on March 8. That falls on a Sunday this year, with people and organizations around the world planning to celebrate the “social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women,” according to internationalwomensday.com.

The day’s organizers call on everyone to “challenge stereotypes, fight bias, broaden perceptions, improve situations, and celebrate women's achievements.” Importantly, they note: “Equality is not a women's issue, it's a business issue.”

There’s a growing bank of research to support that assertion. 

Studies have found companies that have women holding executive leadership roles are more creative and innovative. As well, more women in corporate leadership correlates with stronger profitability — even more so than when women serve on boards.

In 2017, Callahan examined leadership teams at U.S. credit unions and found 51.4% of CEOs were female. When it comes to assets under female stewardship, however, the movement outperforms other industries and notable, successful companies but still has some ground to make up if it is to reflect true equality.

So, in the spirit of helping the next generation of great credit union leaders, more than a dozen of the industry’s top women offer their thoughts on the following three questions:

  • What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?
  • What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?
  • If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described? 

Kim Alexander, EVP/CFO, Blue Federal Credit Union 

Kim Alexander, EVP/CFO, Blue FCU

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?

KA: Believe in yourself, work hard, stay out of gossip circles.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?

KA: A great work ethic — not connections, not competition — can be a leader for your career.

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described? 

KA: Kim is smart, hardworking, and positive in both her personal and professional life. 

Melva McKay-Bass, SVP of Business Development, Suncoast Credit Union

Melva McKay-Bass, SVP of Business Development, Suncoast Credit Union

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?

MMB: Be fierce and confident in what you know, but never be too humble to ask for help. Early in my career, I fought hard to be as respected as my peers. I was typically much younger than my peers and a black woman, which created even more of an uphill battle. I was timid and docile and lacked “outer” confidence — I did not want to be seen as “angry, arrogant, or pushy.” Also, I was afraid at times to ask questions I felt I was “expected” to know. I had a lot of pressure — much that was self-inflicted.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?

MMB: That there is power in my own inner voice — listen to it!

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described? 

MMB: I would like my story to be described as one of resilience, sacrifice, and triumph — for that truly is my story. For those who know me and my journey, I think you would agree.

Monica Belz, CEO, Kauai Government Employees Federal Credit Union

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?

MB: Invest in yourself. Believe in yourself.  Surround yourself with inspiring and uplifting people who believe in you, too.

Monica Belz, CEO, Kauai Government Employees FCU

Also, financial cooperatives are vital for human equity across our planet — and our industry needs you.  If you're not yet hooked to this industry for life, LinkedIn me or attend the DE Program from NCUF.  Let's talk story because establishing your "why" early will save you decades in your career and life.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?

MB: Human equity is a mindset. Everyone is human and going through a similar human journey. Nobody is superior or inferior. Yet, someone(s) created everything we see and experience today. We have the responsibility to influence the creation and evolution of the world around us — at a micro and/or macro level — which our grandchildren and next generations will experience. Let's own this responsibility, embrace it, and forge meaningful change for the best of our future generations.  

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described?

MB: Biography? Haha … you're way ahead of me. If I must indulge: Authentic. Human. Fun. 

Somehow, inspiring my children to love and embrace everything about themselves and encouraging others they encounter to do the same.

HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMENS DAY! THANK YOU TO ALL THE WOMEN WHO HAVE COME BEFORE US. WHAT AN HONOR TO TAKE THE TORCH FROM HERE.

Cheryl Brown, Chief People and Organizational Excellence Officer, Publix Employees Federal Credit Union

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?  

Cheryl Brown, Chief People and Organizational Excellence Officer, Publix Employees FCU

CB: Have a great self-image of yourself and confidence in the value you bring. Intentionally or unintentionally, you will face situations that will challenge you. That is okay — as long as you do not lose your confidence. Once someone steals your confidence, they can steal your future. It is difficult to deliver excellence consistently in your work when you lack confidence. And the only way you can lose confidence is if you choose to give it up. So, fight to keep it. I guarantee it will be one of those secret ingredients behind your success.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?

CB: It is vitally important to have a mentor and a sponsor in your life and to be intentional about building those relationships. To stretch yourself in your career, you need a mentor, someone who will encourage you, challenge you, and believe in you. You also need a sponsor that can speak on your behalf because of their position and help open doors of opportunity for you to excel in your career. I would be further along today if I had held myself accountable to search out those relationships and had taken them more seriously.

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described?  

CB: I would hope that it would be said that: "She was a person who inspired people to be their best and knew that started with her giving her best to them. Her best came out of being a woman of faith and having unconditional love for people. She wanted everyone she came into contact with to know they were special and appreciated.

Leigh Brady, EVP of Organizational Development, State Employees’ Credit Union

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?

Leigh Brady, EVP of Organizational Development, State Employees’ Credit Union

LB: Work hard, work smart, and welcome change. Now, more than ever, we are seeing a migration in the general workforce, and especially in credit unions, of more women moving into management/executive positions. The opportunities for women might have increased, but one thing that has not changed over the years is the need for women to set themselves apart to be noticed. Working hard and smart shows dedication and self-discipline, but welcoming and being adaptable to change and taking on a new task demonstrates an ardent desire to move forward, which often leads to future opportunities.  

What do you know now that you wish you had known sooner?

LB: That my undergraduate degree major should not have been accounting! Although understanding numbers and financials is great, I am more of a people person and figured that out in MBA school a couple of years after finishing my undergraduate degree. Hindsight is always 20/20, but one way to hone your strengths is to figure out what those strengths and passions are.  I recommend any exercise that helps determine your talent DNA. In CliftonStrengths, for example, my top five themes are communication, responsibility, positivity, command, and woo — not a trace of analytical, intellection, input, and strategic.

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described?

LB: Since a biography is written by someone else, I might be described as a stubborn, reactive stimulator who talks a lot, demands far too much, and works too many hours but ultimately cares about the interests of others, often putting them before her own. Would I like to be described differently?  Probably so — who wants to be known as stubborn and picky — but I will accept them if a description also includes a commitment to faith and family because ultimately, whether at the credit union or at home, those words often mean love, compassion, and support. 

Julie Cosgrove, SVP of Human Resources, Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?

JC: Be your true and genuine authentic self, and be humble enough not to know everything. To me, this means you speak from your heart, you share your honest perspective and opinion, you seek feedback and listen to it — even when you don’t agree with it right away — and you continuously seek ways to learn more about yourself, your role, the organization, and the industry.  

Julie Cosgrove, SVP of Human Resources, Affinity Plus FCU

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?

JC: Early in my career, I truly believed leaders KNEW what to do at every turn — with every decision and in any situation. I thought there was an exact right way to do things and to lead things, and I would wait for someone to share because I believed they would know the way! Over time, I learned there is very little that is that black and white or that precise. I wish I had known sooner that in most cases and situations in leadership and life, you simply need to take a step forward without knowing all the answers first. It isn’t starting with a perfectly laid out plan — it’s starting with one step and adjusting as you go to take another step forward.

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described? 

JC: On Mother’s Day this past year, my first-grade daughter wrote her ‘favorite thing’ about her Mom — “My favorite thing about my Mom is that she gives me second chances.” Very similarly, I hope I would be described by others as humble, compassionate, and simply kind.

Sara Dolan, CFO, Michigan State University Federal Credit Union

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?

Sara Dolan, CFO, MSUFCU

SD: Take the seat at the table, share your thoughts, and say ‘yes’ to the project — don’t wait until you feel like you are 100% ready for it. It can be scary to take on an assignment that might be completely new, but this is where you can learn the most and apply your perspective. Sometimes, we try to plan our career path in a way that is so specific, we might miss the value in taking a detour. My background is in accounting and finance, but my first executive position was in adjustments (collections) and loss prevention. This opportunity provided invaluable experience about problem solving, communication, and member service. 

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?

SD: Speak up when you have a question or idea. Active participation leads to the best outcomes and provides opportunities for everyone to learn and grow. When you are starting out, you might think everyone knows more than you but have confidence in yourself and your ideas. People want to be supportive and will answer your questions or appreciate your ideas. 

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described? 

SD: I hope I am described as someone who is a leader in my organization, understanding not only the financial performance but bringing creativity and innovation to our payments and analytics functions and serving as a strategic leader. I would like to be known as someone who supports others in achieving their goals and a supporter of women leaders. And, that I am a mom to four amazing, talented, and creative children who will see what I have been able to accomplish and be inspired to pursue their dreams. 

Martha Fuerstenau, CEO, American 1 Credit Union

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?

MF: Build resilience. Building resilience is essential to success as a strategy to combat things that don’t go your way, either because of your actions — or inactions — or because of others blocking your way. Sexism and misogyny are alive and well in this world, including the credit union world. We need you to persevere because your voice is important. Moving forward under adverse conditions is essential.

Martha Fuerstenau, CEO, American 1 Credit Union

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?

MF: Emotional intelligence (EQ) is more important than IQ or that business degree. It doesn’t matter what your major or minor was in college. In fact, I strongly advocate for a liberal arts education. Study anything and everything — continuous learning is what matters. How you relate to people will determine your success professionally and personally.

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described? 

MF: I hope my biographer would describe me as a person who shows up, works hard, and is curious and competent. I am most proud of my ability to relate to all kinds of people, especially people I don’t agree with on any particular topic and especially the hot button topics. I find the good in most people. My professional journey from teller to CEO is a story that inspires women to think about their own opportunities more confidently.  If I can do it, so can you.

Alexandra Gekas, Vice President of Marketing & Engagement, Callahan & Associates

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?

Alexandra Gekas, Vice President of Marketing & Engagement, Callahan & Associates

AG: Work hard. Show you care. Show your passion. Don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves to solve a problem or step up to a challenge that takes you out of your comfort zone. Also, look the part. As young females in the workplace, it can be hard to be taken seriously. Dress for the job you want in five or 10 years, not tomorrow. 

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?

AG: I wish I had known you are always being evaluated, whether that be presenting at a staff meeting or eating lunch in the company café. You have to be on your game 24/7. And if you are not, you need the self-awareness to learn from mistakes and be better the next day. 

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described? 

AG: I’d like to be described as a good person with a strong work ethic, someone people looked up to.  

Trish Kordas, Chief Culture Officer, Tucson Federal Credit Union 

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?

TK: I would encourage every woman to be authentically you — and only you. Compromising yourself to fit into a form that others expect you to be will not allow your brilliance to flourish. Seek the kind of workplace culture that inspires you to be courageous, confident, and compassionate. 

Trish Kordas, Chief Culture Officer, Tucson FCU

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?

TK: I wish someone would have encouraged me to be bold. Although I have always appreciated a collaborative work environment, making decisions by committee isn’t a long-term strategy for success; you’ll never please everyone. Trust in yourself and the experience you’ve gained. Establish a trusted group of no-nonsense advisors, and rely on them to calibrate you. Empower yourself to make fearless decisions. 

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described?

TK: Born and raised in the heat of the beautiful Arizona desert, Trish has honed her passion for music and serving her community. She has built a career around creating workplace cultures, where people thrive in their purpose. She is mommy to an adventurous toddler and wife to a smokin’ hot hubby.

Erin Mendez, CEO, Patelco Credit Union 

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?  

Erin Mendez, CEO, Patelco Credit Union

EM: Be your best at all times; stay on top of your game; continue to learn; be an inquisitive, critical thinker; and always listen/be attentive/be intentional and engage. Why? Because excellence demands constant attention.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner? 

EM: Nothing. Life should be about continual learning. Past experiences — including mistakes, trials, and tribulations — are part of the learning process and lead to success and being a better person and leader.

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described? 

EM: She made a difference, particularly when it mattered

Brandalynn Winchester-Middlebrook, SVP of Culture + Community Engagement, Lake Trust Credit Union

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?

BWM: Be open to stepping out of your comfort zone to experiment with new and different responsibilities, even if you’ve never imagined yourself doing them. This exposure can help broaden your perspective and make you a more versatile and valuable member of any team. Additionally, these experiences might help you architect a new path for your career or even philanthropic pursuits.   

Brandalynn Winchester-Middlebrook, SVP of Culture + Community Engagement, Lake Trust Credit Union

I’d also recommend that young women have a personal board of directors — a group of people you trust that has your personal/professional growth and development in mind. You want this board to be made up of people with diverse perspectives who will be transparent with you and be a source of feedback that can help you grow and elevate your skills and competencies. Additionally, this group can be a sounding board for advice. 

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?

BWM: I’ve known for a long time that having a network was extremely important. However, it took me many years to learn the power of building alliances and networks beyond my discipline and industry. As industries become more diverse in the services they provide and companies become more conscious of social purpose, we have an opportunity to take our cooperative spirit beyond the credit union industry for the betterment of our communities and the people we serve.

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described? 

BWM: I’d like to be described as a person that challenged conventional wisdom where needed and contributed to creating solutions for the benefit of other people. And as a result of that happening, a person (or many people) were able to go further or advance beyond what they thought were limitations in their life.   

Drew Putt, Chief Business Officer, Georgia’s Own Credit Union

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?

Drew Putt, Chief Business Officer, Georgia’s Own Credit Union

DP: Give 150% to your employer — get there early and leave late with a smile on your face, ask for additional work, help others, make your boss look good and take work off of her desk, speak with confidence, ask what and how not why and when. It will pay off for you the rest of your career in expanded opportunities and increased compensation.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?

DP: Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff.

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described? 

DP: Leads collaboratively, communicates effectively, thinks strategically, gets the job done, and has fun.

Karen Rosales, CEO, Arlington Community Federal Credit Union

Karen Rosales, CEO, Arlington Community FCU

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?

KR: I tell my daughter to lean in, seize learning opportunities, and take learning risks. Every experience weaves into the fabric of your career, and you’d be surprised how seemingly inconsequential experiences can ultimately create meaningful career-building moments.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?

KR: The cost of working in an environment that does not align with your personal value set is high.  The return is negative. Honor your values. 

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be remembered?

KR: I’d like to be remembered as a leader who valued her team and authentically invested in the success of those around her. A leader’s success, and the success of her organization, is only achieved through investment in others. 

Kristin Shultz, CEO, NRL FCU

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why?

Kristin Shultz, CEO, NRL FCU

KS: I know you asked for one, but I will give you two: Be strong, brave, courageous and take risks. There are no limits to what you can achieve, only those you put on yourself. Also, an unknown wise person said, “If you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.” Have passion for whatever you do, believe in the mission, and give it your all!

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?

KS: I think women in general strive for perfection —  at work, in school, at home, in our appearance, in everything. But I now know it is those imperfections in each of us that make us special, so celebrate them, don’t fear them. 

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described? 

KS: I would like to be remembered as a fair, fun, compassionate, happy, genuine leader and ultimately as someone who made a positive difference in the lives of many. 

** BONUS **

Katy Slater, SVP, Callahan & Associates

What’s one piece of advice you have for young women entering the workforce/field? Why? 

Katy Slater, SVP, Callahan & Associates

KS: I have two. First, no one builds a career on their own. Take the time to build relationships with those below, at, and above you on the org chart. It is these relationships that will bolster and support you each step of the way. Second, push forward. Take on more than you think you’re ready for — whether it’s a project or promotion — and then deliver. Confidence is perishable, so build your confidence every day.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner? 

KS: Slow down to speed up. Success in business is not just about accomplishments — it’s the steps and connections you make that matter most. 

If there was a biography about your life, how would you like to be described? 

KS: As someone who takes time to connect with people. A circle-widener. The fiercest advocate and harshest critic — whichever is most needed in the moment. People might not always like what I say, but it’s always sincere and coming from a place of positive intent.

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March 6, 2020


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