Attention to detail and a drive for quality are part of Caroline Willard’s DNA, thanks to four years of working at Disneyland as a college student. When American First Credit Union recruited her from a southern California thrift in 2001, she knew little about the credit union movement but immediately felt the difference in the cooperative environment. She’s been working with credit unions ever since.
Caroline Willard, President/CEO, Cornerstone Credit Union League
Here, the president and CEO of Cornerstone Credit Union League shares her thoughts on the importance of focus, finding inspiration, and what she’d like to see more of within the credit union industry.
On early career lessons …
I worked at Disneyland during college and learned a ton about discipline, show quality, and putting forth your best effort every day. There were lifelong benefits I’ve reaped from my time there. For example, a drive for quality and attention to detail are drilled into you. Disney isn’t about amusement or a ride, it’s about having a happy day with your family. The fact that the extrinsic product you’re selling isn’t always the same as the intrinsic appeal or need has really stuck with me.
The fact that the extrinsic product you’re selling isn’t always the same as the intrinsic appeal or need has really stuck with me.
On a practical level, I was a stand-up trainer and learned how to give a presentation. Disney taught me about better posture and how to be an effective public speaker. I didn’t realize how much that would come in handy at the time. I give a speech a week now on average.
On joining the credit union movement …
I joined the credit union movement in the 1990s. I was working at a thrift when I got a call from a recruiter with an opportunity to become vice president of marketing and planning at American First Credit Union ($736.1M, Brea, CA). I didn’t know anything about credit unions apart from being a member of Partners Federal Credit Union ($1.7B, Burbank, CA), but after the interview I sensed the culture and environment was warm and engaging. So, I took the job.
On leadership styles and what makes a great leader …
My leadership style is to gather as many great ideas as I can and then work with a team to sift through which ones we should pursue.
We use Franklin Covey’s 4 Disciplines of Execution. My natural tendency is to keep offering up good idea after good idea, so I’ve had to force myself to be disciplined about focus. The ability to execute well is one of my strengths, but I’ve had to learn how to do that.
A great leader knows how to set the vision for the desired end state, then back away slowly and let the team do the problem-solving. Being a new CEO, I can tell you that’s been hard. In my previous roles, I’ve always been one of the chief problem solvers.
On building a team …
I am looking for a team of six to eight individuals who represent something super-human when you add them together. I don’t want to clone myself or have all left- or right-brain individuals — I am looking for diversity of opinion and style. That’s what creates chemistry and the kind of creative energy that you don’t get if there is too much sameness in a group.
I’m always interested in talking with other leaders and learning ways to balance the doing and caring parts of being a CEO. I’m naturally task-oriented, so I need to pause to recognize people and show the team they are valued. You need to put your heart into the business, not just your head.