Diversity Holds the Key

Laurie Baker
Stephanie Schwenn Sebring Photo
Contributing Writer
Fab Prose & Professional Writing

4 minutes

Don’t underestimate the benefits of women and all-around diversity in the workplace. An organization can tap into more talents and new expertise—for clearer, faster decisions.

CUES member Laurie Baker, CIE, was promoted to CEO of $1.2 billion The Summit Federal Credit Union, Rochester, New York, in February 2020—right before the pandemic hit. After thriving in several other leadership positions at the credit union, she offers fresh insight in her new role as CEO.

“First, it’s impossible to explain my transition to CEO without mentioning the pandemic,” says Baker. “We migrated to hybrid and remote work weeks after I became CEO. Ensuring we had the equipment and technology—along with the right mindset—was extremely challenging. Despite the difficulties, many positives emerged, including the ease and acceptance of virtual meetings and more face-to-face interaction via technology.”

While pandemic challenges linger, Baker sees other pressing challenges for new credit union professionals and CEOs today: creating a vibrant culture of diversity, acceptance, and a path forward for more women to join leadership positions and the ranks of CEO.

Consider the Stats

Statista reports that, currently, women hold 8% of CEO positions in the U.S. The industry with the highest percentage of hiring new female CEOs is the apparel industry (67%). Female CEOs also vary by geographic location, says Business Insider, with Oregon touting the most in the U.S.

While credit unions tend to have more women in the highest-ranking position, there’s room to improve. Overall, credit unions rank favorably in the financial services industry, with more female CEOs than banks, 51% for credit unions versus 3% for banks. But that number plummets as credit unions increase in asset size. For credit unions with assets of $1 billion or more, the number of women in the CEO position is just 13% (CUNA, May 2021), moving closer to national averages.

“We have a unique opportunity to shine as credit unions,” says Baker. “We already have many amazing women that are part of our organizations. The next step is to prepare them for CEO and other leadership roles. We can do this by focusing on development, mentoring, and exposing future leaders to many different facets of the business. Embracing and encouraging diversity of thought and opinion will only help to strengthen the much-needed ability to think and act strategically.”

Along with fewer female CEOs, there are also fewer female board members. “As credit unions, we have to be intentional in fostering a diverse workforce, leaders and board members—and for us at The Summit Federal Credit Union, we’ve been intentional in recruiting female leaders throughout the organization. Of our senior leadership team, six of eight are women. On our board, four of 11 are women.

“Diversity is an asset for any company,” she continues, “specifically for us, because we sincerely value different perspectives and understand that our organization will be stronger if our leadership team and volunteer base are diverse. We respect what makes people unique. It’s part of our value system.”

Laurie Baker, CIE
The Summit Federal Credit Union
Diversity is an asset for any company—specifically for us, because we sincerely value different perspectives and understand that our organization will be stronger if our leadership team and volunteer base is diverse. We respect what makes people unique. It’s part of our value system.

Always hire the best person, “but to encourage diversity, avoid hiring people who are just like you,” Baker advises. “Otherwise, your team takes on a commonality or overly similar look that could result in group-think. Instead, seek a varied candidate pool and be intentional about it. When you’re continually cultivating a diverse collection of candidates, you have a wider choice of contenders already in the pipeline. Without the pipeline, you may not have time to be strategic with your next selection.”

Tips to cultivating a diverse candidate pool include:

  • recruiting through a variety of channels that reach different audiences;
  • networking with people who may know of qualified and diverse potential applicants; and
  • considering hiring candidates from outside the credit union industry.

It’s All About Relationships

Taking time to listen and learn from others is critically important when taking on or aspiring to a leadership position.

“If you’re just stepping into management, find a mentor,” advises Baker. “Being able to lean on someone else on occasion—and absorb their experiences and advice—is hugely beneficial. Find ways to serve and learn. Shadow other credit union leaders. Attend credit union events. Get involved with your chapter. Do anything to gain industry experience.”

If you’re a leader, be strategic in helping your rising stars:

  • Focus on fostering effective and trusting relationships with your team.
  • Be open and willing to listen, and step into mentorship roles with those who work for you.
  • Embrace the rookies! 

Also, consider forming a DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) council at your credit union. “Ours is a partnership between our executives, HR and board, and is comprised of a cross-section of 10 employees. The purpose is to help identify ways we can be more inclusive as an organization,” says Baker.

“Immediate benefits we’ve seen include a newfound camaraderie and sense of excitement to make meaningful change,” she adds. “Long-term benefits are yet to be determined, but I would venture to say that our focus on DEI will positively affect employee engagement. Engaged employees are more passionate and committed, and this sense of ownership will certainly trickle down to the member experience.”

Every organization (and every industry) has an opportunity to encourage women to become leaders and embrace diversity. Be intentional. Focus on fashioning a welcoming, open-minded culture. Your credit union will reap the benefits.

Stephanie Schwenn Sebring established and managed the marketing departments for three CUs and served in mentorship roles before launching her business. As owner of Fab Prose & Professional Writing, she assists credit unions, industry suppliers and any company wanting great content and a clear brand voice. Follow her on Twitter @fabprose.

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