Caren Gabriel of Ascend FCU reflects on nearly four-decade career in the CU industry.
The push for more seats at the executive table continues, as it has for decades, for women across the United States. A recent study by Catalyst.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the number of women in corporate leadership, found that although women make up 47% of the U.S. workforce, just 40% hold management roles. The study revealed that a large reason for the disparity is that men are more likely to be promoted to management positions earlier in their careers. Too often, many women across all industries have been shut off from the avenues that would allow them to reach the upper levels of business.
Fortunately, credit unions have stood out as an industry sector leading the way in promoting women to positions of executive leadership. CUNA released an encouraging 2021 report that found women made up 51% of credit union CEOs, and 33% of board members — far ahead of leadership at banks, where men make up 97% of CEO roles. There is much progress for credit unions to celebrate.
As an employee at Ascend Federal Credit Union for 37 years, and the president/CEO since 2004, I’ve been able to see firsthand the many wonderful contributions from women leaders at our organization and beyond. When reflecting on decades spent in the credit union industry, I believe that women historically have thrived in executive roles by exhibiting four traits that have made them great leaders in our field:
1. Collaborative Leadership
One of the biggest advantages of a collaborative approach to leadership is that it creates and cultivates an environment where employees feel that they are part of the process and have a voice in where the organization is heading. Of course, top-level leadership still needs to design the overall plan, but engaged employees and managers are more likely to feel that they’re invested in the long-term direction of an organization and that their opinions are valued.
A 2019 Harvard Business Review study found that women excel at many leadership competencies, with women specifically scoring high in the area of collaborative leadership. I’d argue that this type of leadership is among the most effective in creating a “buy-in” effect from employees — and it makes it more likely that they’ll be productive and less likely to leave.
The ability to understand, feel for and comprehend the difficulties that employees face on the job can be a powerful tool for leaders, as it shows employees that their feelings are sincerely cared for.
When employees believe that management sees them as people, and not just numbers, they are far more likely to experience satisfaction in their work and careers. Especially now, when employers are dealing with “The Great Resignation,” the ability to attract and keep top talent may be the most important quality that a leader can possess.
As has been widely reported, organizations all over the nation are struggling to retain employees. Any edge that leadership can demonstrate right now increases the chances of keeping talented, competent employees in 2022 and beyond.
A large reason that I’ve stayed with Ascend since 1985 is because the credit union’s hometown, Tullahoma, is also a place where I have deep family roots. It’s a personal tie that keeps me connected to the city and the credit union. I feel loyal to the area, Ascend Federal Credit Union and its employees.
People sense authenticity and, I hope, sense the authentic connection and love that I have for Middle Tennessee and its people. Likewise, if employees sense that leadership is loyal to them, and is acting in their best interests, they’re far more likely to produce their best results for the organization.
In my opinion, the most important thing to remember about loyalty in leadership is that it is and will remain a two-way street — employees will only feel as loyal to their company as they feel that the company, and management, are loyal to them.
In American business, when we think about the most reported upon and celebrated leaders, they tend to have big personalities — people like Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey or Elon Musk. And a big personality at the top of an organization can certainly lead to big successes.
But I would submit that a concentration on humbleness, and a willingness to spread recognition of successes around an organization, can also be a very effective style of leadership – perhaps more effective.
This style promotes an atmosphere of support, promotion from within and an ability to admit mistakes when they’re made. It also creates a culture where accountability is foremost, while at the same time, employees are rewarded for the great jobs that they do.
A humble leader should strive to be the first to take responsibility for mistakes and the last to take credit for successes. In my experience, employees respond favorably to this type of leadership from the top—and the reward for leadership is a favorable bottom line for the organization.
It’s my hope that by sharing some of the leadership traits that have allowed me to enjoy many years at Ascend FCU, more women will be given the opportunity to step forward and show that women are, and will continue to be, effective business leaders. As exhibited in the CUNA study, while credit unions have performed admirably as compared to some other industries in promoting women to leadership roles, there is a still a long way to go.
We should continue to promote women, especially earlier in their careers, to give them the same chances that men have historically received. With widespread support from men and women able to help in this cause, results are sure to follow for women, not only at credit unions, but in all areas of business.
CUES member Caren Gabriel is president/CEO of $3.7 billion Ascend Federal Credit Union, Tullahoma, Tennessee.
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