Bruce Adams has switched careers from government service to member service, but the principles and best practices for managing people and priorities has helped him make what could have been a tricky transition.
Adams became president and CEO of the Credit Union League of Connecticut in August 2019 after serving as deputy commissioner of the state’s Department of Revenue Services.
An attorney by training, Adams also has served as general counsel and acting commissioner of the state Department of Banking and as deputy legal counsel to the state’s governor. And from March 2016 to January 2019, he was general counsel in the office of Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman.
Bruce Adams, President & CEO, Credit Union League of Connecticut
Here, Adams describes his views on leadership in his new role working on everything from government relations and regulatory compliance to executive education, vendor partnerships, and marketing services with the approximately 60 members of the Connecticut league.
What made you decide to join the credit union movement?
Bruce Adams: I saw an opportunity to bring heightened awareness and advocacy to this important industry. When I was in the governor’s office, I helped the league work on securing an exemption from the state sales tax for state-chartered credit union. And when I was with the Department of Banking, I had the opportunity to give a couple of speeches to the credit union community here.
Working with the league staff gave me a perspective and appreciation for credit unions, and I felt I could leverage my access and experience in government and communications to help an industry that deserves to grow.
I left the Department of Banking to help my lieutenant governor preside over a tied state Senate. Following subsequent gubernatorial appointment to the Department of Revenue Services as deputy commissioner, I jumped at the chance to join the credit union movement. Had it not been for the opportunity to lead the Credit Union League of Connecticut, I might still be working in public service for the state.
How does herding credit union cats compare to working with your lieutenant governor as she presided over a tied State Senate?
BA: You can’t just herd half of the cats. When the vote is tied in the Senate, you’re the swing vote, but you have to balance everyone’s interests. You have to reach some form of alignment.
In the credit union space, there are plenty of institutions that see themselves as financial first responders, saving financial lives every day come hell or high water. Others look a lot more like traditional banks, chasing margin to have the resources to give members what they want and need while staying within the cooperative principles. That can take time away from building community relationships or dealing with hard individual financial situations.
Do you work hard to get three more loans, or to help just one person? Both approaches are right. Addressing that tension is what makes credit unions what they are. Talking about it and working on those issues collaboratively and providing resources is where the league provides value.
How do you describe your leadership style? What do you consider most important?
BA: My leadership style is more situational than static. There are circumstances that call for close coaching, whereas others require a more hands-off approach. The challenge is knowing how to identify the style that will generate the best work in the moment and position the team member for greater success going forward.
For me, it’s not enough to set a corporate vision for the league and help it achieve its goals. What is most satisfying is empowering and enabling the team members to fulfill their potential. As a leader, I set high expectations for the team and give them the room and resources to succeed.
The most important component of leadership is the vision to identify, encourage, and grow the capabilities of the team as whole and those of each team member.
“There are circumstances that call for close coaching, whereas others require a more hands-off approach. The challenge is knowing how to identify the style that will generate the best work.”
How did your career as a regulator prepare you for your role in the credit union movement?
BA: Effective regulation requires balancing the interests of the industry with those of the consumer. Therefore, where appropriate, the regulator must advocate for the industry in the form of regulatory relief or even in the public sphere.
The regulated entity deserves to view its regulator as a trusted supporter that will correct honest mistakes, fairly punish intentional wrongdoing, and help the entity avoid problems before they arise. Similarly, credit unions must balance their mission to serve their members and communities against the search for growth and margin.
What leadership lessons have you taken away from the pandemic, from both your own experience and that of the credit union leaders with whom you work?
BA: One of the most important lessons this pandemic taught me was to stay visible and vigilant in service to my team and our community. Although the league is the face of the credit union movement in Connecticut, our members are the true financial first responders.
They were busy saving lives throughout the pandemic while we were busy protecting them in the statehouse and promoting them in the media. That’s why the league opened its doors to every Connecticut credit union regardless of affiliation status. It was the right thing to do. Opportunities for leadership vary intensely depending on the situation, but the obligation to do the right thing never changes.
The pandemic was also an opportunity to get the credit union message out there in ways that served everyone. While we were shut out of the statehouse, I took to the airwaves about moving tax day from the 15th to 17th, for example, and I got to say “credit unions” five times.
The same thing happens when the local CEO gets to talk about financial tips and what cooperatives can do to help. It’s all about keeping your finger on the pulse of what elected officials and community members want and need to hear. We ought to be speaking out.
The Callahan Collection On Leadership
The On Leadership Callahan Collection spotlights notable leaders across credit union land by digging into their past, discovering how they joined the movement, finding out what makes them tick, asking about career successes and lessons learned, and seeking advice for the future of credit unions.
What about leagues? Are they relevant and importance now? Will they be in the future?
BA: The leagues might represent one of the most valuable but underutilized resources in the credit union system. Leagues are closer to credit unions than anyone else. Leagues know their members the best and they know which messaging will generate the most impact in their communities.
Building a stronger credit union system will require that leagues help their members to become even more visible on the local, regional, state, and even national stages. We need more voices speaking out and inviting greater participation in the credit union movement.
What is your best advice for credit union managers interested in a league career?
BA: Balance is key. Although it’s essential to understand the credit union difference and build knowledge of how a credit union operates within its marketplace, it’s just as or even more important to understand the industry more generally. A league must continually balance and support the diverse interests and needs of its members. At the same time, it must develop the skill to represent credit unions to the public and to elected officials as a unique and unified industry that deserves protection and promotion.
Join the Impact Network and take advantage of the resources in the Credit Union Impact Center. Both are initiatives from Callahan & Associates to help member-owned financial cooperatives put greater focus on “the credit union difference” they make in their communities.
This interview has been edited and condensed.