Caroline Willard On Leadership

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.


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.

Caroline Willard, President/CEO, Cornerstone Credit Union League

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.




On where she finds inspiration …

I’m a scuba diver, hiker, and skier. I’m inspired by nature and love anything that gets me out seeing this beautiful planet. I’m also a traveler and just visited my 25th country, Ireland. I find travel inspiring because it gets you outside of yourself. For example, driving on the left side of the road is like trying to write with your left hand, you must be deliberate and think about it. Traveling also makes you realize there are a lot of different ways to do things.

On a professional level, I attend a lot of conferences and take a ridiculous amount of notes. I’m constantly looking up concepts if something new is mentioned, and shooting my team emails. I love sharing how others solve problems to see how we might incorporate that. League presidents are generous with sharing best practices, and that’s been a gift in this job.

On big accomplishments …

This isn’t mine to claim solely, but I was on the team at CO-OP Financial Services that helped the organization grow to where it is today — from a couple of hundred employees to 1,300. I’m proud of the collection of business and service models we built during the 11 years I was there and served as a key contributor on the team.  

At the Cornerstone Credit Union League, I’m proud of how we helped credit unions when Hurricane Harvey hit last year. We monitored 189 branches and a few hundred credit union employees. We have a foundation to help monetarily, but we did a lot more than that. We helped credit unions stay viable, from trouble shooting with armored car services to coordinating/matchmaking with cores and generators. In the end, we also issued $2 million in grants to help credit unions and their employees get back on their feet.

On what the industry needs more, and less, of …

We need to generate better consumer awareness of what a credit union is. We’ve got to act collaboratively and think of the good of the movement. I’d love to see the industry create a category brand, not just an institution-level brand. People don’t realize they can join a credit union. We need more of the collaborative spirit to solve that problem.

On the flip side, I would like to see less consolidation in the movement. Some of the smaller organizations are going away because the efficiency isn’t there, but in many cases, they were the only financial institution in their community. It’s a problem we’re looking to solve. We want small, well-managed credit unions to remain sustainable.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Sept. 3, 2018


  • Great perspectives and leadership!! Thank you for taking the time to do the interview and sharing.
    David Warren
  • Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment, David. I agree that Ms. Willard offers some great perspectives. Please take a look at our other "On Leadership" pieces for more leadership insights.
    Rebecca Wessler, editor