Can-Do Gets It Done

Patience O'Brien
Contributing Writer

6 minutes

Inspiring change is seldom easy, but that’s what Patience O’Brien is tasked with accomplishing. She and her team of visionaries are rising to the challenge.

CUES member Patience O’Brien, CCUE, PMP, says she’s always been “the brightest optimist” in any room. It’s a positivity that has propelled her career throughout the years, serving her well in some fairly demanding jobs.

For example, prior to arriving at Member One Federal Credit Union in 2016 where she took on the role of VP/corporate projects, she acted as assistant director of social services for two local governments. O’Brien was also a licensed professional counselor for almost 10 years, with much of her career centered on human services counseling, community program development and special projects/strategic planning for local governments and nonprofits.

Now she has stepped into a position that seems to be a perfect fit for someone so perpetually upbeat—that of chief transformation officer for Member One FCU.

Headquartered in Roanoke, Virginia, $1.6 billion Member One FCU has 15 branch facilities throughout the southwestern part of the state, with entities including a real estate and small-business center and a national ATM network. The credit union and its 318 full-time and 11 part-time employees serves its 145,000 members through its retail operations as well as through partner companies in other states.

After spending two years as VP/corporate projects, O’Brien was promoted to SVP/corporate projects in 2018.

“I was originally recruited by the credit union to help develop and implement an enterprise project management program,” she recalls. “Over the six years I served in [those positions], the responsibilities extended beyond projects, primarily in the areas of design thinking, innovation and organizational change management. I have been in my current position as chief transformation officer since June 2022.”

O’Brien may be somewhat new to working in the credit union industry, but her appreciation of it goes back decades.

“I have been a credit union member for 34 years and thus a long-term supporter of the credit union movement,” she explains. “My passion and commitment to my community and core values of service attracted me to this industry professionally.”

O’Brien earned a bachelor’s degree in human services counselling from Old Dominion University and a M.A. in clinical psychology from Saint Michaels College. She is also a certified credit union executive and holds a project management professional certification. Additional certifications include those in business strategy and design thinking from the UVA Darden School Foundation. She is a 2011 graduate of Leadership Roanoke Valley, serving nine years as advisor, program chair and alumni chair promoting leadership collaboration to address the various challenges facing Roanoke Valley.

Curious about what a chief transformation officer does, Advancing Women asked O’Brien to tell us about what this role entails, how she prepared for it and how other women might do the same.

Exactly what does a chief transformation officer do?

“I serve as the organization’s executive champion for the strategic plan and the annual goal-setting process. I ensure that the organization is working effectively and collaboratively to achieve its strategic plan, while providing visibility to initiatives to both garner excitement and ensure teams are set up for success. As the leader of the transformation office, my and I team serve as in-house consultants to departments on key questions around strategic planning and execution. Disciplines that fall under my purview are project management, organizational change management and strategic management. ”

How many people are on the team and what is the mission guiding your efforts?

“The mission of the transformation office is ‘we make good change happen.’ Including me, there are seven and growing. Most of the team members are part of the project management office, which is one division of the transformation office. I expect the change management office to expand in the next year as well as adding another position to support strategic planning.”

How did you prepare yourself for this kind of role? And if someone was interested in facilitating transformation, what would be some of the best things to do to achieve that position?

“A very wise person once said to me ‘Be open to what might show up … and be sure you leave some space for it.’ My human services background is a natural fit for helping people through change; along the way, I just stayed curious. I prepared myself for this role by building knowledge and skills in those core areas of discipline—projects, change, strategy—and surrounded myself by people who challenged me with new ways of thinking, those champions of ‘what if.’

“If someone is interested in transformation work, I’d recommend gaining a solid understanding of strategic planning, look for diverse leadership growth opportunities and develop a strong business acumen.”

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

“It can be an exciting or a challenging time to lead transformation—I think it’s exciting. The businesses that will flourish are those that have a vision for the future and are agile [enough] to respond to our rapidly changing environment. In the current environment, I find my most exciting focus is strategic management—that is, discerning what we should do, how it can be done and when it can be done. It’s a big puzzle that requires you to know a little bit about everything. My kind of challenge.”

What has been one of your most exciting career accomplishments to date?

“I have been fortunate to have been given many opportunities, and I am very proud of my many accomplishments whether they be educational or advancements in my career. I’d like to believe I am yet to discover the greatest accomplishments. I have embraced a ‘divine discontent’ for learning, and each new challenge before me. I’m motivated by developing and conquering what is before me; I don’t spend much time looking back.”

What do you mean by ‘divine discontent for learning’?

“I would define this as relentless dissatisfaction with what is that leads to things being better. In this context, I meant that I have an insatiable desire to keep learning.”

Speaking of, were there any particular career challenges that have proven instructive?

“Early in my career I found myself challenged to get others to consider new possibilities, everything from seemingly obvious process improvements to big overhauls. Sounds like transformation work, right? We didn’t call it transformation then; it was just change. And change is hard. I learned then the value of empathy and relationships. I’ve built my career on it.”

What is your advice for women working in this industry who want to advance in their careers? And how can credit unions and industry organizations best support women in their efforts?

“There are three tenants I live by:

  1. Know your audience. During my entire career, I have been a saleswoman. I don’t sell widgets or products; I sell ideas. Each time I approach a new transformation I have to carefully consider the audience in order to gain buy-in. Listen to learn—what value does it bring to them?
  2. Stay true to your values. This is where you will do your best work.
  3. Create your own future. Don’t wait for it.

“As for supporting women in their efforts, it all starts with inclusive-minded leadership. Welcoming diverse voices and perspectives will always make a business stronger; look for ways to amplify the voices of women.” cues icon

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

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