When Bill Kiss or Jeff Shewfelt introduces himself at community and industry events as co-CEO of G & F Financial Group, “it’s always a conversation starter,” says Shewfelt. This unique arrangement took a little getting used to inside the $1.25 billion Burnaby, British Columbia, credit union, as well, but seems to be working just fine now. In the almost four years since they were named co-leaders in July 2011, the credit union has achieved solid growth and enviable employee engagement metrics.
Kiss joined the organization as chief financial officer in 1996, and Shewfelt started in the branch network in 1991, working his way through branch management, loan processing, marketing, and HR; he was VP/sales and service when the CEO post opened. “We had a history of 15 years of working well together, and we both had extensive, but mutually exclusive, networks in the industry,” Kiss notes.
So when the board launched a national search for a new chief executive, Kiss and Shewfelt threw their hats in the ring collectively. “We told the board we certainly understood the need to go outside the organization if they wanted to go in a different direction culturally and strategically. But if they wanted to move forward with our current strategy, we could do that without slowing things down,” Shewfelt says.
Consistent, Prompt Joint Decisions
After assuming their new shared title, “a lot of it was really just what we’d been doing all along,” Kiss says. “There were more questions from outside the organization than in.” Still, the co-CEOs have made a conscious effort to make consistent, prompt, joint decisions, especially on strategic and policy issues, and to provide a united front to discourage any attempts to play one chief executive against the other.
They kept their same offices and have side-by-side unassigned parking spots. “The first one here takes the inside spot” closer to the door, Shewfelt says.
Their shared leadership model provides a wide range of benefits, from doubling the presence of a CEO in the community to getting out and about to G & F’s 13 branches. “We have a better sampling of feedback from our separate interactions with staff and our own perspectives, and decisions are far better talked through” than if there were a single CEO, Kiss suggests.
Shewfelt believes the cooperative example of their shared leadership sets the tone for a more productive work environment and high levels of engagement among the credit union’s 200 employees. G & F has achieved employee engagement scores of 93, which its HR partner ranks as extremely high, and has been honored as a top employer in British Columbia.
Initially, some colleagues seemed skeptical about the arrangement, but over time the co-CEOs have fielded inquiries from interested CUs that are in merger talks or have a retiring CEO. Kiss and Shewfelt’s take is that this approach could work in other organizations with two long-term employees with a solid track record of working well together; with a retiring CEO working alongside his or her successor during a transitional period; or with two CEOs of merging CUs during a short-term transition.
“It probably wouldn’t work if you were recruiting two executives who hadn’t worked together previously,” Shewfelt says. “You have to have a level of trust.”
“We had an unfair head start, because this is what we’d been doing for 15 years,” Kiss agrees. “We knew a lot of the fundamentals, what it would take to make it work.”
Karen Bankston is a long-time contributor to Credit Union Management and writes about credit unions, membership growth, marketing, operations and technology. She is the proprietor of Precision Prose, Stoughton, Wis.
pictured above: Bill Kiss (left) and Jeff Shewfelt (right)