‘Don’t expect things to happen for you. Make them happen,’ is sage advice from an industry CEO who knows what it’s like to be the minority in the room.
CEO of PolicyWorks LLC, West Des Moines, Iowa, Miriam De Dios Woodward led Coopera Consulting, Des Moines, before taking on her current leadership role. We asked this female Latina leader about her growth as a leader, what skills translate best across leadership roles and for advice for aspiring leaders.
How do you define leadership? What mentors have helped you grow as a leader? What did they teach you?
Leadership begins with a focus on people and service to others. You need to have a commitment to the development and growth of people, while also developing a vision that is inspired by your purpose and passion for the mission of the organization. Leaders then motivate and inspire others around that shared vision, making it a reality and building an even stronger team, organization and community.
I’ve been lucky to have great mentors in my life. Warren Morrow, the late founder of Coopera Consulting, a wonderful person and visionary leader, played a significant role in my growth and development early in my career. I had never met a leader like him before. He was mission-driven, passionate, humble, inquisitive and inspiring. He led by example and showed me the power of passion behind a vision. He also taught me how to influence and inspire people around a vision and address adversity. I was very lucky to have learned from him.
Murray Williams, CEO of the Iowa Credit Union League, has also been an important part of my leadership journey. He is a practical and strategic leader who challenges the status quo and invests in people. He’s taught me how to be a better strategic leader, to lead with an abundance mentality and to invest in myself from a growth and development standpoint.
You’ve led organizations that do pretty distinct things. What are the leadership skills and abilities that have translated best across those organizations (and why)?
The leadership skills and abilities that have translated best across Coopera Consulting and PolicyWorks LLC include a passion for the mission and vision of each organization, growing and developing people, and my ability to develop and implement a strategic plan to grow a business.
The mission and vision of each organization has been distinct, yet I have been motivated and passionate about each organization’s mission and vision, which I think is extremely important in any role you take on. If you don’t believe, you will never be able to inspire others to buy in.
I believe the success of organizations correlates with the success of people. Investing in the growth and development of people is not only very fulfilling for me, but I know it makes me a better leader and it has helped drive success for the organizations I’ve led.
Lastly, my ability to leverage and apply my business background and work experience to develop and implement strategy to grow a business into its next phase has also been translatable across each organization.
What has been your biggest leadership challenge to date, and how did you handle it?
My biggest leadership challenge to date continues to be leading change. To run a successful organization, you have to constantly be evolving to stay relevant and be successful. However, that can be easier said than done, because complacency has a lot of inertia. At Coopera, we were in the business of leading cultural change. You would think that running an organization with a change mission would make it easier to lead change; however, it is always a challenge when organizations are not ready and don’t believe in the change, no matter how much you see they can benefit from it. Helping break down myths, using evidence and data to combat complacency, and presenting a compelling methodology to anchor change in culture are ways to handle this.
You currently serve on the boards of the Food Bank of Iowa and of Grand View University. You've also been a director for Network of Latino Credit Unions and other organizations. How has your board service supported your leadership growth over time and your leadership day to day?
The opportunity to be a board member for a number of very different organizations has served as great leadership development for me. It has afforded me a view of leadership from a different perspective. I interact with our company’s and our parent company’s board of directors today. While I am still learning, it has become easier to switch my frame of mind and put myself in the shoes of a board member, which has allowed me to improve my communication, to present ideas and proposals in a different way, and to generally think about more angles of a situation.
H3: Sometimes people think that men are more suited to technical disciplines—like compliance and finance—and women are more suited for “softer,” more people-focused disciplines—like marketing or human resources. What are some special skills you think women bring to the table when it comes to things like compliance and IT, especially in a leadership capacity?
People also think that men may be suited better for business in general, which is one of the reasons why we see a dominance of males in the business industry. I believe that women can bring many of the same skills that men do to any discipline. I, for example, consider myself a people-focused leader with strong operational skills. I have both a marketing and management background as well. I don’t know that either gender has special skills, per se, as I do think it’s more about what each individual leader brings to the table. As an example, I’ve seen and worked with female leaders that that are less people-focused and male leaders who put people first.
What moment in your leadership has made you most proud and why?
My proudest moments are seeing people and the organizations that I represent being recognized for personal and organizational achievements. A few years ago, the Iowa Credit Union League and its affiliated companies, including Coopera Consulting, were recognized with the prestigious Herb Wegner Memorial Award; that was a proud moment, as it highlighted what drove ICUL and Coopera to do what we did, which was a collective mission of improving the financial lives of consumers. Witnessing the growth and development of individuals and knowing that I played a role in that journey, however small, is especially fulfilling.
What advice would you give to aspiring female leaders? How can credit unions and industry organizations best develop future leaders, male and female?
Some advice for aspiring female leaders would be to not get discouraged or intimidated by being one of few if not the only female in meetings, leadership groups, etc. Many times, I was not only the only female, but the youngest and only minority in a variety of scenarios. If I thought about it too much, it did intimidate me. However, I learned to use the opportunity and experience to show my strengths, to voice my thoughts and to represent the need for more diversity and inclusion in business. I encourage aspiring female leaders to do the same.
In addition—this goes for any aspiring leader—devote time to building robust business and community experience by working for a variety of organizations, including large and small organizations, nonprofits and for profits, and serving on boards. This will help you better understand what your purpose is, what drives you and how you want to lead. Be very self-aware, understand your strengths, your areas of improvement, how you engage from an emotional intelligence standpoint and what your leadership style is. Be purposeful and open to growing and evolving as well. Also, don’t expect things to happen for you. Make them happen. Volunteer when you see a new opportunity, be curious and thoughtful, appreciative and reflective, and always be learning and applying what you learn.
Credit unions and organizations can best develop future leaders by investing in people and creating organizational cultures where people come first. Encourage and empower future leaders to own their growth and development and allocate resources, including time, for them to do it.