Rob Miller On Leadership

How an economic developer, money manager, and keen collaborator at the helm is empowering a green revolution at Vermont State Employees Credit Union.

 
 

CU QUICK FACTS

Vermont State Employees Credit Union
Data as of 03.31.19

HQ: Montpelier, VT
ASSETS: $796.2M
MEMBERS: 66,913
BRANCHES: 9
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 4.1%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 4.9%
ROA: 0.69%

As a collaborative leader and social entrepreneur, Rob Miller believes in asking questions, allowing his team to develop their own professional capacities, and that more can be accomplished together than individually. He also believes in Vermont, which has felt like home from his college days at the University of Vermont to his work as a public servant, business professional, and now as CEO of the Green Mountain State’s largest state-chartered credit union for the past five years. 

Before joining the credit union industry, Miller held various positions at Citibank, Dwight Asset Management, and Conning. He also served as commissioner of the Vermont Department of Economic Development from 1994 to 2000.

Here, the leader of Vermont State Employees Credit Union ($796.2M, Montpelier, VT), discusses how his personal philosophy aligns with the values of member-owned cooperatives, what distinguishes great leaders, and why he sees enormous opportunity for our industry in the future.

On joining the credit union movement…

I was working for a large asset management  firm in Hartford, CT, before I joined the credit union. VSECU was looking for someone whose experience blended financial expertise and knowledge with an economic development framework. 

My personal philosophy is basically synonymous with the structure of credit unions as member-owned cooperatives. My aspiration as a leader is to bring people together to accomplish more than what could be achieved otherwise. Credit unions are a prime example of groups of people self-organizing to provide each other products that, otherwise, would be more difficult to obtain. 

On leadership styles and what distinguishes great leaders…

Rob Miller, CEO, Vermont State Employees Credit Union

I’m a convener and an enabler who likes bringing people together. I ask questions more than I give direction. This allows my team and co-workers to develop their own professional capacities, with my support and encouragement, instead of me making all the decisions myself. 

I’ve always believed a great leader watches from the wings as their team gives a great performance. A great leader is not there to take credit, but to inspire and motivate others. I appreciate that there can sometimes be a conflict between those two elements of being backstage and inspirational. 

A great leader knows when to be off-stage and when to be on-stage. It’s important to be very intentional about what you’re doing in that role. I’m inspired by motivational leaders who are on-stage, but also motivated by people who you don’t hear a lot from as they quietly make their organizations inspirational. 

On choosing the right team…

The employees I directly manage are also leaders within the organization, so I’m looking for them to reflect the values that we present in the marketplace through our brand, vision, and purpose. We promote ourselves within the market as being in tune and connecting with our cooperative values. If we’re promoting that externally, we must act and lead cooperatively internally as well. Otherwise, there’s a terrible inconsistency.

I also look for leaders around the table who can bring multiple perspectives. Not only should they be comfortable with feedback from divergent viewpoints, they should be uncomfortable making decisions without input from multiple perspectives. It’s less about being right and more about facilitating and leading a process where we come to the right decision. 

I’m very process oriented and believe that five people sitting around the table and integrating diverging points of view will yield a better decision than two people who see things similarly. A leader must be process oriented, as a good process will yield good results. 

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On finding inspiration…

One of the reasons I took this job was, in part, to get off an airplane. I was traveling quite a bit and that prevented me from spending as much time with my family. I have two daughters and they were in middle school at the time. I didn’t want that part of my life to pass me by ― my family is my primary inspiration. My daughters and wife ground me and allow me to focus on more meaningful things in life. 

We live in a beautiful part in the world in Vermont and nature is also an inspiration to me ― whether I’m hiking, in the garden, or on the lake in Burlington. Those are my metaphysical sources of inspiration and make me want to give back to Vermont and protect those natural resources.

Lastly, I find a lot of inspiration from following and tracking what’s going on in our country as more businesses move toward social purpose as a core value. It’s a seminal moment in our history where businesses are stepping up in meaningful ways. Many are playing roles in society beyond jobs and profit creation to serve as problem solvers. 

Compromising is ideal, but sometimes views are so far apart that you have to step in and make the decision.

Rob Miller, President and CEO, Vermont Employees State Credit Union

On big accomplishments… 

When I joined VSECU the challenge was following a great leader and finding ways to make a strong organization even better. The most significant thing I’ve done isn’t a particular product, service, or initiative, but re-establishing our mission ― to improve our members’ quality of life. Establishing that and allowing it to guide and change how we think about doing things has led to innovation.

Whether it’s through offering our vGreen lending program, helping launch a crowdfunding platform with non-accredited investors, or establishing a co-working space in the middle of a new branch we built, it’s the act of putting mission in front of everything we do that causes us to think in new and different ways about improving the quality of life of our members.

On making difficult decisions…

When you have a broad range of opinions about where to head, you must be sensitive about integrating those perspectives into a decision. That can be difficult. Despite my best efforts, people do feel strongly about their point of view. It’s not always about being right at the credit union, but we were brought up in a world where being right is important and we can’t gloss over that. 

Those differences of opinion can create tension, which is often viewed negatively. When you process that tension as conflict, it can lead to dysfunction. However, if you process it as information and try to get to a result that includes multiple perspectives, people appreciate that. Compromising is ideal, but sometimes views are so far apart that you have to step in and make the decision. 

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

I’d like to see more refocusing on the original purpose and mission of credit unions, more cooperation amongst credit unions and less competition. I believe that you tend to end up looking like those institutions you choose to compete with over time. We run that risk when competing with banks, and often with other credit unions. That’s a process that ultimately gets us to a point where we look like everyone else.

It makes financial services even more commoditized when we lose sight of our purpose and focus on things like ROA, growth rates, and the net interest margin. Those are really outcomes. We need to focus on the impact we’re having on members’ lives. Would anyone miss us if we disappeared tomorrow?

That’s a difficult question to say no to, but we operate in an extremely competitive business and it can be difficult to differentiate ourselves. However, there’s an enormous opportunity for credit unions to differentiate based on impact and purpose ― to showcase how we’re making a difference in people’s lives. 

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July 1, 2019


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