Winning people to your side requires clear and confident communication—a skill that is serving Sara J. Kennedy, CSE, well in her career.
Anyone who has experienced the frustration of not being able to push a project through or sell stakeholders on an idea can relate to the position CUES member Sara J. Kennedy, CSE, found herself in a few years back. At the time, Kennedy, now SVP/associate experience at Members 1st Federal Credit Union, was working as director of HR for a small chemical engineering firm and was attempting to implement several HR improvements she was excited about. Despite her enthusiasm, her initiatives didn’t land and weren’t supported as she’d hoped. Her mistake?
“I didn’t make sure I took my stakeholders with me,” Kennedy recalls. “I got feedback from our head of sales and marketing that I was moving too fast. He made a good point: I didn’t slow down and get his buy-in on the timeline for changes. The product was good, but not communicating before a change and working with him on the timing of the change resulted in him not really supporting it.
“What I learned,” she continues, “is that if you don’t have the feedback, you don’t know your message is being received. Now I ask for feedback at all different levels of our organization to see if the messages are flowing up and down.”
Members 1st FCU, headquartered in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, has almost 60 branches across eight counties, with several more slated to open in 2022, says Kennedy, who joined the credit union in 2018 in the SVP position. The organization, which has assets exceeding $6 billion, serves almost 500,000 members throughout the country with its more than 1,100 full- and part-time associates.
“In my role, we focus on the entire lifecycle of our associates—from the way we recruit to creating a place of belonging, guiding them through their career development and sending them off with a dignified retirement,” says Kennedy. “We fill more than half of our positions internally, so we offer robust certification processes to help associates learn our business and expand their skills.”
Kennedy, who has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s in training and development (both from Pennsylvania State University) also holds several professional certifications. These include Professional in Human Resources (PHR), SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP) and Certified Employees Benefits Specialist (CEBS). She has recently begun a master’s certification in leadership through Elizabethtown College. Advancing Women spoke with Kennedy on the topic of communicating with clarity and confidence and how honing this skill has helped advance her career.
Why is the topic of communication so important to you?
“Communication is critical to our success as an associate, leader or executive. I think we often spend time ‘talking,’ but how often do we effectively communicate to achieve shared meaning and understanding?
“When I think about communicating with confidence and clarity, I think it really comes down to being a subject-matter expert and then practicing. Take the time to do the research to understand the topic and be prepared to answer questions. Confidence is something that comes from within. Practicing helps build that, as well as being positive about your message and the potential of the positive outcome. The more you master your trade, the more confident you will be. And confident people are influencers.”
What have you done to improve your communication skills?
“I take every opportunity I am given to present. If I don’t have a standard presentation, I build one. I don’t shy away from opportunities, no matter how nervous I am. I push myself to lean in and take a chance on a presentation, and each time I have done this, I have grown.
“For example, I was recently given the opportunity to be interviewed by our local news station. I was nervous, especially when the camera turned on. But my practice kicked in; I considered my talking points and stayed positive and was told I did well—so well they sent me back again. I was interviewed three times. It was nerve-wracking, but I got better each time.”
What other measures have you taken to advance your career?
“When I think about human resources, my professional certifications have helped me grow and build confidence. The time that I have spent researching and learning about my trade has helped me bring new ideas into work and improve our credit union.
“I also believe in life-long learning. I am always in the middle of a good book. I have several leaders I follow on social media, and I push my team to bring in new ideas from leaders around us. Career growth never stops, no matter what role you are in.”
Whom do you like to follow on social media?
“John Maxwell has done some great work on servant leadership. He sends a daily short video with words of wisdom. I had the chance to hear Cy Wakeman speak about drama at work; her insights and online tools are things I use every day. I also really enjoyed Brené Brown’s book, Dare to Lead. I follow her online and really respect what she’s doing with trust building. You can’t go wrong following Simon Sinek. His work on explaining the ‘why’ is something I use constantly. And I recently went to a Visionaries conference and met Cordell Carter, who has some thought-provoking views on belonging.”
Were there any formal mentors who helped you hone your leadership and communication skills?
“I can’t say that I have been part of a formal mentoring program, but I can tell you I definitely have people that mentor me, even if they don’t know they are playing that role. I have sought out mentors by asking questions and listening with an open mind. In a prior organization, I was confiding in our VP/operations about some of my frustrations about a co-worker. She looked at me and said, ‘Sara, you have no long game. All you focus on is winning all the small battles.’
“That hit me like a bolt of lightning. She was right. I was so determined to be the expert in every conversation that it was irritating—no one likes a know-it-all. As I observed her, I learned that she asked questions, waited to share her opinion, and waited for an impactful moment to influence a decision. I also learned that she would ask questions to win people to her way of thinking—and that when the other person thinks it is their idea, they take it and run with it. But being mentored by her required me to ask questions, observe and reflect. I didn’t formally ask, ‘Ivy, will you be my mentor?’ Instead, I asked her for feedback, listened and waited. And she changed my career, whether she knows it or not.”
How can credit unions best support aspiring leaders who would like to expand and enhance their communication skills?
“I think it’s a combination of training and opportunity. There is a value to training on how to give an effective presentation and practicing in front of others as we learn a new skill. But the other key is providing the opportunities to present. Start with smaller presentations that have minimal risk, give feedback, then give someone a bigger stage. When we present, the best thing our leaders can do is prep us beforehand, listen to the presentation, then debrief afterwards. This is how adults learn: through repetition and reflection.” cues icon
Pamela Mills-Senn is a writer based in Long Beach, California.