Fitting in to Stand Out

Maryrose Bernabe
Contributing Writer

6 minutes

Finding your place on the leadership team can prove challenging for women, but can help in making your mark.

When it comes to building a career, landing a spot on a leadership team is just the first step; you still have to carve out your spot on the team if your tenure is going to have any impact. This can be tough for anyone, male or female—especially those new to the leadership role or industry—but women in particular often struggle to find their footing.

“As women, we experience different degrees of obstacles when we are new to the leadership team,” says CUES member Maryrose A. Bernabe, guest editor for this issue of Advancing Women. “We compete against other qualified candidates, male and female, for a place in leadership. Some of us struggle, while others coast easily. In some cases, women tend to have to prove themselves and often must work harder than their male counterparts.” Bernabe, who was until recently the director/member contact center at $2.4 billion State Department Federal Credit Union, will soon start a new role as the vice president/contact center at another credit union.

Bernabe started at State Department FCU in February 2017, stepping into a leadership role at that time. This marked Bernabe’s first introduction to the credit union industry. Prior to her hiring by State Department FCU, she was employed as the director of a contact center for a government contractor for health and human services, spearheading the enrollment program for the Affordable Care Act in the state of New York. The multilingual call center was tasked with providing services to those requiring enrollment assistance, and Bernabe was indirectly responsible for over 200 employees and for the overall call center performance management. As the first employee for the project, she handled all the recruiting, hiring and office-space buildup.

Bernabe spent 20 years in New York before returning to Washington D.C., her hometown, to be closer to family. During this time, she was offered the position at State Department FCU. Her primary duties included managing and overseeing the Member Services Center, focusing on continually improving the member experience and implementing solutions to increase efficiency and productivity. Bernabe holds a B.S. in computer science, an MBA and recently completed her M.S. in cybersecurity technology. Additionally, she has completed the online Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Cornell Certificate Program and Harvard ManageMentor leadership courses available for CUES members.

When Advancing Women asked Bernabe to select a topic of importance to her and to other women in the industry, she chose that of finding your place on the leadership team. Below, she shares her insights on how to accomplish this sometimes daunting challenge and how credit unions can better support women as they step into leadership roles.

Why is this topic important to you?

“I’ve experienced ups and downs while transitioning within an organization or between industries. I often say that to find your place in leadership, one must be the right person at the right time and the right place. Simply put, you might be the most educated, well-skilled and knowledgeable candidate there is, but if you are not viewed as such, then it will be difficult for you to find your place in leadership.

“Some of these transitions weren’t easy, I admit. Dedicating 110% of my time to learn and adjust to the roles and being able to find organizations that gave me the opportunity to rise into leadership roles was important. I’ve had my share of mishaps and have taken those experiences as learning opportunities. To rise above is not as simple as being the expert on something—it requires hard work, dedication, drive and the ability to showcase your talents.”

What are some of the missteps women make when new to a leadership team that can undermine their successful integration?

“When joining a new team, we women sometimes question our abilities and go through self-doubt. We might even feel intimidated by the members of the team, resulting in a lack of engagement, which is viewed by others as having low self-esteem or low self-confidence. And some women are afraid to speak up because they fear being judged by others.

“To avoid any missteps when joining a new team or organization, it’s important to connect and learn the team and organization’s culture. Building a rapport with the team in general is a good practice, and showing genuine interest is also important. Humility and the ability to build trust are critical steps as well. Someone new to an organization who might be an expert on something may not necessarily be successful if they aren’t able to collaborate with other team members effectively. Knowledge and expertise aren’t the only important traits in leadership; you must also have emotional intelligence in order to gain the trust of others and connect well with the team.”

What kind of support proved especially helpful to you when you first assumed a leadership role?

“Having a leader who genuinely expressed interest in my growth and development was the best support I ever received as a new leader. I was lucky enough during my initial career transition to report to a leader who was very supportive. Through her, I was able to understand the importance of building rapport and trust. She was my mentor, although she didn’t know it.

“[Also] all of the leadership trainings and workshops are helpful for any aspiring leader. However, we’re accountable for our own success, and therefore, the application of the learning from the training is critical. Leadership isn’t easy; you must learn to collaborate effectively and gain the trust of your team. But the one key item I always remember from my mentor is the importance of accountability. To be a leader, not only should you hold your team accountable—you must also hold yourself accountable for your success and for the success of the team and organization.”

What can credit unions do to better support women stepping into a leadership role, either for the first time ever or for the first time within the credit union?

“When any internal advancement is available, it’s important for credit unions to look within their organization and identify those employees who may be qualified for any future advancements. Credit union leaders should consider establishing a mentorship program for advancing women in their organization. Investing time with new advancing leaders or new leaders in your team is also very important.

“It’s also very important that your leader understands your expectations, goals and mission to ensure that they are completely aligned. Having a consistent open dialogue and feedback session will help build and establish trust, and don’t forget to give new leaders the autonomy to make decisions and sound judgment.” cues icon

Pamela Mills-Senn is a writer based in Long Beach, California.

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