Seth Schaefer On Leadership

The Rivermark Community president and CEO began his career as webmaster and says the front-facing member experience is a priority now equal to back-end bookkeeping.

 
 

Seth Schaefer, President and CEO, Rivermark Community Credit Union

Seth Schaefer became president and CEO of Rivermark Community Credit Union ($870.2M, Beaverton, OR) in July 2018, culminating a journey at the Portland cooperative that began with his hiring as a webmaster in 2003.

That trajectory, which took him through successive marketing and member experience positions, reflects the movement’s move toward recognizing the importance of digital prowess along with financial expertise in both personnel and products.

Schaefer says he is seeing more peers emerge at the top of the organizational chart from non-finance positions, bringing with them new perspectives on how to ensure an ideal member experience. And, he emphasizes that such a priority is now more important than ever.

Here, Schaefer shares more on his philosophy of leadership, a culture of collaboration with other credit unions, and what he thinks the industry needs to do to respond to change and competition.

On the evolution of his credit union career … 

I began my credit union journey 16 years ago in marketing as the webmaster. Until I joined, I viewed credit unions at a distance. If I had been asked about a CD, I probably would have asked about the artist. With my background in marketing and technical training, I brought a different perspective to the credit union, leveraging a “why” mentality to dive into all aspects of the business. 

After four years in marketing, I assumed the new position of sales director, where I focused on deepening member relationships through coaching and data-driven member journeys. Director of strategic initiatives was next, which exposed me to all aspects of the business and allowed me to execute the strategic plan through project management. 

I’m discovering a peer group that recently came up through marketing, technology, and member service. To compete in an increasingly digital and experience-driven market, those skill sets can and should be leveraged equally with finance.

Seth Schaefer, President and CEO, Rivermark Community Credit Union

Next stop was vice president of member experience, then chief experience officer, for which I oversaw member facing operations, facilities, insurance, and lending. During that time, I also led our branch transformation efforts.

I have been fortunate during my time at Rivermark to experience a “master class” that covers all aspects of credit union operations. My experiences guide and drive what I hope is an empathetic strategic outlook as CEO. Luckily, I have found a home in an industry that lives the mission of helping people.

On diverse career paths … 

Until the opportunity presented itself, I was not passionate in pursuing a CEO position. Yet, at the right time, I discovered I had something to contribute to the movement, specifically to Rivermark. 

I think it’s fair to say the most common path to the position is through finance. However, I’m discovering a peer group that recently came up through marketing, technology, and member service. To compete in an increasingly digital and experience-driven market, those skill sets can and should be leveraged equally with finance. 

On leadership style …

My leadership style reflects traits I seek to hire and celebrate in others. Vulnerability, curiosity, realness, a drive for results, and purposeful collaboration. I’m a true believer in the ethos of Simon Sinek’s thoughts on the leverage of “why”  as well as Peter Drucker’s premise that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” People need to feel like they belong, and it’s imperative that we create that as a leadership team.

As a leader, I’m fascinated by our capability to gather insights from employees and members to design the experience outside-in. One of my favorite sayings is that the “plural of anecdote is not data.” Interestingly, this is a misquote from political scientist Ray Wolfinger, who said, “the plural of anecdote is data … all data is information surrendered.” Yet, my working version is a reminder that decisions are best made by truly understanding the problem prior to seeking solutions. 

On collaboration …

I am blessed in the Pacific Northwest to be among a hyper-collaborative group of credit unions and a supportive CEO network. The collaboration drives community impact, advocacy, and market presence, and the high penetration of membership to state population reflects these positive efforts. At Rivermark, we have opened our door to more than 100 credit unions to share our progressive branch model and digital first strategies.

On creating a better member experience …

Member experience starts with one question in all channels: How can we have better conversations with our members? 

This question has led to large changes for Rivermark in how we identify needs, how we communicate with our members, how we wrap financial wellness into our workflow, and how we leverage local, personalized service. 

We radically changed our branching model in 2013 to answer many of these questions, and the model continues to evolve. We now serve 25% of transactions in face-to-face interactions outside of traditional business hours.

This transformational focus has forced difficult decisions in areas where we want to truly excel —direct lending, housing, businesses services, and payments.  Our balance sheet is maturing to reflect these decisions, and we’re happy with the direction.

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

I’m concerned with the recent results of the ACSI customer satisfaction survey showing banks finishing ahead of credit unions for the first time in the survey’s history. The challenge of being everything to everyone within a smaller footprint has taken its toll. 

We thrive when credit unions can differentiate themselves in the market by asking, “what can we do better than anyone else?” and perhaps more importantly, “what should we stop doing?” Consider: We are uniquely structured and empowered to impact housing insecurity; we can and should impact small business capital needs;  we must have an impact on the movement of money with our combined scale; and we endure by creating proactive conversations with members.

The progressive nature of CUNA's “Open Your Eyes” initiative reminds us of the importance of moving away from playing on defense in advocacy and market share. Aggressively sharing our value proposition allows us to drive that conversation.

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