A Purpose-Driven Career

Tansley Stearns
Contributing Writer

5 minutes

All it took was a job in a department store basement for Tansley Stearns to discover a passion for the industry and its mission of service.

In 1998, CUES member Tansley Stearns, CME, CSE, now president/CEO of $1.3 billion Community Financial Credit Union, was straight out of college, looking for a way to put her double major in English and psychology to use. Her credit union career began in the basement of a Macy’s department store in Waterford, Michigan.

“I was looking for jobs in social work and in marketing and happened to earn an interview with a credit union that served Macy’s employees, BestSource Credit Union,” she recalls. “My interest focused on gaining experience, contributing as a marketer and learning in a new role. But as I started learning more about credit unions, I quickly fell in love. The purpose-driven work resonated with my desire to create positive change in the world.”

Stearns spent nine years with BestSource CU (which later merged into Oakland County Credit Union and then into what is now $1 billion Vibe Credit Union, Novi, Michigan), starting as a marketing specialist and leaving as vice president of sales. She then moved on to other credit unions and industry organizations—including a stint at the Filene Research Institute—assuming positions that elevated her titles and responsibilities. She joined Community Financial CU this June. Headquartered in Plymouth, the credit union has 13 branches across Michigan, with eight situated throughout metro Detroit. Its 324 team members serve 85,550 members comprised of anyone who resides, works, attends school or worships in the state.

Prior to her arrival, Stearns was COO at $3.9 billion Canvas Credit Union in Denver, landing there in March 2018 as chief marketing and strategy officer. She describes her May departure as one of her hardest.  

“The team there truly is a family,” she says of her former colleagues. “While I’ll miss that family for years, the great news about credit unions is that we continue to collaborate, share and engage no matter where people travel over time.”

Stearns earned her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Michigan and also participated in the Filene i3 program. She has also attended the CUES CEO Institute. Below, she shares some of her career journey with Advancing Women.

You mentioned you weren’t actively looking to make a change. What inspired you to make the move to Community Financial CU?

“I’ve been dreaming about, and working towards, becoming the leader of a credit union for nearly 20 years. I’m excited about the opportunity to lead at CFCU. This is an exceptional organization, and my predecessor, Bill Lawton, did wonderful work to help us to become the well-run credit union we are today. This next season will be one of investment in resources and people to prepare us to scale. I love to build and invest in people, and that’s precisely what we do each day.”

Of your current responsibilities, which do you find the most exciting?

“I love every element of my role. Working together as a team and shaping a culture that supports serving members is critical. This enables us to dream boldly about how we can change the world for Michiganders. We dream about the impossible things and unify as a team to make those possibilities come to life.”

What has been one of your most exciting career accomplishments so far?

“I had the opportunity to walk with Canvas Credit Union and their creative team through a re-brand when I arrived there more than four years ago. The brand work was such a blast, but more importantly, the way we accomplished that transformation truly changed my life. We did it as a family. While the creative team and our leaders played an enormous role, each person within the organization engaged fully and that approach helped bring the brand to life in a way that immediately shifted how Coloradans saw the credit union. Playing a small role in that work was a defining moment in my career.”

What has been your biggest leadership challenge to date?

“I codified my leadership philosophy—which I describe as providing both ‘cushions and wings’—during the pandemic. Before that, the concepts were important to me, but I had not quite articulated them fully. The catalyst was observing the tremendous human toll many people experienced over the last three years.

“I believe the things that organizations used to call the ‘soft stuff’ are the hardest and most valuable leadership efforts. We must provide cushions. This means we must get to know one another, spend time together, and build relationships and trust. This helps us to celebrate in the best of times and fully support one another in the toughest times.

“By providing cushions, we can then invite wings to grow. These ‘wings’ include the opportunity to learn, the possibility of trying new things, innovating and the vital job of dreaming boldly and acting on those dreams. Neither cushions nor wings function well alone, you must have both. It’s messy work; people are miraculously complex. The great news is, when a diverse group of people build those cushions, the wings grow and become colorful and powerful. From there, the potential to manifest positive impact exponentiates.”

Tell us about the best career advice you’ve received.

“The best career advice I’ve received was the tough feedback I needed to improve. I’m a perfectionist. I’m also my own worst critic. And yet, those that have provided me cushions and built trust with me over time have also told me when I needed to focus, shift, practice more or stretch myself. I am incredibly grateful to the human beings who cared enough about me in my life to share that difficult input. I didn’t always love hearing it, yet it has allowed me to grow.”

Do you have any advice for women who want to grow and advance their credit union careers?

“My advice to anyone is to do the hard work when nobody is looking. Do the job nobody wants. Pick up the task that has been ignored. Find the weed in the landscaping and pull it. All of us want the fast track to our dreams. Waiting for dreams to come to life can be agonizing. But over time, when you do the work, remain curious, and continually challenge yourself to improve, more opportunities come to life.” cues icon

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

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