Liz Hayes knew Infinity FCU needed to change direction. Five years after she took the helm, membership has grown and the ship has stabilized.
In that time, she introduced more-robust reporting, and led a balance sheet transition, among other successes.
CU QUICK FACTS
HQ: Portland, ME
Data as of 03.31.19
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 6.3%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 6.3%
Before the opportunity arose to interview for the CEO position at Infinity Federal Credit Union ($344.2M, Portland, ME), Liz Hayes was presented with the same opportunity at a different credit union. She passed.
From conversations with those familiar with the shop, she developed a sense of the culture and leadership of the credit union, knowing that it likely wasn’t the best fit.
“You can change the numbers,” says Hayes, who has served as Infinity’s CEO since October 2014 after moving from Affinity Plus FCU ($2.3B, St. Paul, MN). “But if the board or management team in place doesn’t have the latitude or expertise to help you achieve those results, it doesn’t matter what opportunities exist in the balance sheet.”
Six months after she passed on the first opportunity, a recruiter connected Hayes with Infinity FCU. Financially, the opportunity presented its challenges: membership was in decline, facilities were outdated, the balance sheet was too concentrated in first mortgages; yet, Hayes focused on the positives. The board was receptive to new ideas, the senior team was strong and worked well together, and Infinity was headquartered in a part of the country where she was more than happy to move.
“Overall, you need to understand yourself — your wants and your strengths — and make sure they match with the board’s vision and the overall direction of the credit union,” Hayes says.
Out Standing In A Field
Liz Hayes, CEO, Infinity FCU
Hayes inherited a tenured senior team when she arrived at Infinity, one that had grown tight in the preceding years under previous leadership. Immediately, Hayes saw the importance of her being accepted by the team and worked to build relationships with staff, knowing better than to think staff would simply follow her just because she was the CEO.
“Regardless of your title, you can make the mistake of believing that people have to follow you,” Hayes says. “The reality is that they don’t. People have a choice. In order to lead and have others follow you have to first be accepted by your team.”
That takes time, of course, which may run counter to the best-laid plans of many new CEOs — i.e., to accomplish as much for the credit union as possible in short order. Hayes estimates it took her the better part of a year to gain the acceptance of her team.
“Some make the mistake of coming in and working mainly with the board to put a strategic plan in place and assuming staff will just accept it and move forward,” Hayes says. “You get the best results when your people played a part in creating that plan, they understand it well, and they trust you. The worst-case scenario is to think you have all these followers, and when you hit a bump in the road you turn around and no one is with you. You’re just out standing in a field alone.”
When Hayes started, she noticed the remnants of the top-down culture favored by previous leadership; while jarring at first, it provided to her, as a new CEO, an opportunity to build a rapport with her executive team and other upper-level management. When she was approached with a question or a situation she deferred to their judgment and local knowledge before making the ultimate decision.
“I said it all the time, ‘All I know is where I’ve been.’ What I need is to hear from you,’” the Infinity CEO says. “You have enough of those joint conversations, brainstorm enough of those ideas, and you have success. That helped me gain the credibility I knew I needed to lead this team.”
It also helped her identify talent. For instance, she felt that Infinity’s head of IT at the time was lacking the depth of knowledge necessary to lead this department into the future. That was the only position on the senior team Hayes re-hired.
“I walked into a situation where we had talented people who really knew their stuff,” she says.
90 Days And Beyond
A CEO-Approved Reading List
What books should new CEOs have on their bookshelf? Liz Hayes, CEO of Infinity, makes her picks:
Within her first 30 days on the job, Hayes had met with every Infinity employee because the size and footprint of her organization allowed it. In the 60 days after that, she set for herself three goals.
First, she wanted to answer questions. A CEO change can be jarring for team members, and Hayes wanted to show her new team her cards. “I wanted them to ask me questions first-hand to get a sense of me personally and my style. Nothing was off the table,” she says. Questions ranged from her work history to how her family was adjusting to the move.
Second, she needed reporting. At the time, Infinity did not have a data warehouse or an MCIF system; those who needed credit union-specific reports generated those from the core. What Hayes needed, and was also lacking, was industry data. Within her first few days on the job, she called, and partnered with, Callahan & Associates and Filene, knowing that access to industry trends and analysis would help justify strategic decisions.
FOR U.S. CREDIT UNIONS | DATA AS OF 03.31.19
From negative member growth in the early part of this decade, Infinity’s quarterly member growth now ranks at or near industry average.
“I needed information on our peers in the industry to say, ‘Look at us compared to credit unions nationally. What jumps out as a problem? What’s the opportunity?’” Hayes says. “What’s important is that it’s not me saying it. It’s what the data says.”
Third, she needed to present those industry learnings to the board to set her direction. In many cases, the information she presented to her board — five-year trends, deposit market share — was unknown to them, but it spurred questions and helped Hayes generate buy-in for a new strategic direction. For instance, the board believed Infinity’s main competitors were credit unions, when the data shows approximately 80% of the deposits in Infinity’s market are held by Bank of America and TD Bank.
“Educating the board in this way gave me the latitude to ask for certain things and back it up,” Hayes says, “like why we needed to build a branch in one area not another.”
In practice, pairing better data with a more educated board allowed the credit union to change smartly. Where do people work? Build a branch there. Need to diversify the portfolio? Renew focus on consumer loans. Grow members? Introduce a new checking account that rewards people for their participation.
Since Hayes’ arrival, Infinity’s member growth has consistently bested state peers, and the once 14,000-strong shop has added some 4,000 new members overall. But the work has not stopped, nor should it. Nearly five years into her role, Hayes knows more about her market and her membership than when she started, but she’s still not afraid to ask for help or lean on the wisdom of others who may know better. Nor is she afraid to make the decisions that are in the best interest of the credit union.
“The right CEO is going to come in, take time to get to know things, but then say, ‘We’ve looked at it and this is the direction we’re going in and why,’” she says. “You need to be decisive.”
4 Tips For New CEOs
Liz Hayes became CEO of Infinity Federal Credit Union in 2014. Here, she offers four tips for new CEOs.
Grab the reins: “If you are waiting for the board to reach out and tell you what they want to see, or if you are waiting for management to say this is the established direction of the credit union, then the board hasn’t hired the right person.”
But don’t be afraid to ask for help: “New CEOs can be loath to do that because they don’t want to look like they don’t know what they are doing. But that can create a bad cycle.”
Use your network: “You may not have a good network locally, but hopefully you have people you have formed relationships with over time, across the country perhaps, who you can reach out to and ask for advice.”
Find the person who will tell it to you straight: “As a CEO you don’t really have a peer within the organization, but if you’re relying on your team for feedback you need to develop the relationship to the point where they can tell you what they really think, and not what they think you want to hear.”
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