At 44, Smith earned a Juris Doctor degree and in his spare time enjoys practicing law to help non-profits and the disenfranchised. He’s also recently added the title of author to his accomplishments, with a new book, Sowing Seeds: Life Lessons From My Father, published in January 2019.
Here, Smith discusses the importance of living with purpose, why he finds inspiration in the stories of others, and how credit unions provide hope — not just financial services — to members.
On joining the credit union industry …
A family friend was on the advisory board for State Employees Credit Union. He said he thought I’d enjoy working there, so I became a loan officer after I graduated from college.
CU QUICK FACTS
Local Government FCU
HQ: Raleigh, NC
Data as of 12.31.18
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 6.6%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 11.1%
But before that, when I was younger, my father made it clear that I didn’t have the luxury of going through life without a goal. We had several conversations about that, and what he shared with me during those conversations set the pace. My father didn’t mind if I changed my mind along the way, but I knew what I’d do with my life. In August, I’ll have been in the credit union industry for 40 years.
On leadership styles …
I like leading from the back. When I’m meeting with my team or colleagues, I prefer to be an active observer and see others’ ideas get out on the table before I add my comments.
When you’re a leader in an organization, it’s natural for others to wait and see what you think about a subject. That chills the conversation and keeps better ideas from making it to the table. If I allow everyone the opportunity to speak their mind, I often find I don’t have to say anything except “I agree” with the best idea. If I support others and allow them to be the best they can be, then our organization comes out ahead.
On the traits of a great leader …
Great leaders measure their success in the accomplishments of their colleagues. They also feel a heavy weight of burden for the people that work alongside them. I have approximately 200 colleagues at the credit union. Each one has multiple family members and loved ones counting on them to be successful. That means that 1,000 people or more are counting on me to do a good job so their loved ones can have prosperous careers. That’s a heavy burden and something I’m still trying to figure out.
If a leader is so single-minded and narrow in their thinking that they don’t see the consequences of their actions ripple far beyond their desk, then they’ll never be a great leader.
We’re helping people live better lives, not just delivering financial services.
On finding inspiration …
I like reading the biographies of individuals who have done great things in life. Whether it is a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a political figure, or someone in the arts. I like to compare the story of their path and where they’ve been to their body of work and what they’re doing now.
At the same time, another way I find inspiration is by reading about failures. My father taught me to carefully read the bad stories in the newspaper — they’re always there, some disgrace or bad decision — because they offer a playbook of what not to do in life. Bad actors show what potholes to avoid. I try to bring these examples back to the credit union. There’s an opportunity to learn something when someone else messes up. If we don’t learn, we’re doomed to repeat the mistake.
CU QUICK FACTS
HQ: Raleigh, NC
Data as of 12.31.18
On accomplishments and what credit unions provide …
I’m proud of the hope we give our members. Most of our members have modest balances and incomes. Those are exactly the people we’re here to help.
I don’t often get to talk to members one-on-one, but every now and then a member gives me their testimony about where they were in life and how we helped. One woman recently told me we could have made more money on someone else but instead made her feel like the most important member of the credit union.
That’s what we provide members — hope and the opportunity to improve themselves or do things they didn’t think they’d be able to do. We’re helping people live better lives, not just delivering financial services.
On difficult decisions …
A bad day for me — which hasn’t happened often —is when we come to the realization that one of our colleagues isn’t cut out for the credit union business, and we must ask that person to find another path in life. That’s a traumatic event for that person and for their family. We are supposed to be anguished and lose sleep over those types of decisions, which are the toughest I’ve ever made.
On what the industry needs more, or less, of …
I’d like to see more compassion in the industry — and perhaps in society in general. I want to see more tenacity in helping low-wealth families and communities. I want to see more attention directed to giving people hope in their financial lives.
I’d also like to see cooperatives of all types adopt an eighth principle: diversity and inclusion. Diversity isn’t merely an equality or fairness issue. By bringing in diverse perspectives and expanding the ideas around the table, your credit union has a better chance of getting better results. That’s why the notion of an eighth cooperative principle that will propel us all forward is such an exciting discussion.
Finally, I’d like to see fewer credit unions treating people like commodities. The conversation about making a loan shouldn’t focus on a credit score. It should be a conversation about what’s going on in that member’s life and how the credit union can make it better. We must understand members’ needs at a core level instead of reducing the business to metrics and acting like a bank to legitimize ourselves in the market.
We are credit unions. We need to embrace the cooperative spirit and emphasize what we have. We ought to run that difference into the ground as much as we can.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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