6 Tips To Reach The Corner Office

Why performance trumps gender and other advice for aspiring leaders.

Stanford Federal Credit Union is a multi-SEG cooperative located in Palo Alto, CA, with close to 50,000 members and roughly $1.7 billion in assets. Joan Opp, who became CEO of Stanford FCU in 2010, began her career as a CPA at the Cotton Parker Johnson accounting firm working as an auditor, consultant, and trainer exclusively for credit unions. In 2002 she was hired as an executive vice president by Texas Trust Credit Union in Mansfield, TX, where she remained until she left to become CEO of Stanford FCU.

I began my career as a CPA at an accounting firm. I worked hard and after approximately three years I was made a partner, at the time the only woman among six other partners. I feel extremely fortunate about the professional opportunities that I’ve had. The organizations that have hired me have been very supportive and have always given me a lot of opportunity and respect.


data as of 12.31.14

  • HQ: Palo Alto, CA
  • ASSETS: $1.7B
  • MEMBERS: 49,014
  • 12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 6.46%
  • 12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 11.43%
  • ROA: 1.03%

Through my career in public accounting, during my time as executive vice president of a credit union, and now as the CEO of Stanford FCU, I have never felt it necessary to play the woman card.

My feeling is that everyone has to rise or fall on performance male or female, you have a job to do and you should do it well. If you are adding value to the organization, the rest should take care of itself.

When I’m asked to give advice to women who are aspiring to leadership positions, I try to emphasize this focus on performance above all else.

Be Forthcoming

I think women tend to hold back a bit more than men perhaps in the hopes of avoiding confrontation or contradicting a majority in the room but the time of withholding your opinions is over. Women need to speak up, respectfully of course, about conclusions they have come to based on solid evidence or experience and not be reticent about it.

This is something I have learned about myself. In hindsight I should have been more forthright with opinions that could have been helpful to my organization, so this is something I try to tell women moving up: If you believe your opinions are properly based, don’t be shy about communicating them.

Seek Out Responsibility And Advancement Opportunities

Another important piece of advice is that aspiring leaders need to seek out responsibility rather than wait for it to come to them. Sometimes women don’t get the same opportunities as men because women are not as forceful in asking for advancement. Men tend to do a better job of asking for or even demanding greater responsibility or the chance to grow within a career. Women need to be more proactive about seeking out opportunities and follow up by demonstrating they are capable.

Everyone, male or female, should approach a career by demonstrating capability. If you do this, you should advance.

Learn From Mentors

I think mentors are very important, and I had a couple who were key to my success. In my case they were both men, but I did not seek them out. They reached out and helped me. I don’t think it matters for an executive-bound woman if her mentors are men or women. It matters more that you have a couple of good ones. I would also advise a woman looking to advance to evaluate working with an executive coach.

Find Your Balance

It’s often said that a woman executive has a harder time because she also has so many off-hours responsibilities, including being a wife or mother. I don’t think we should be thinking this way. A person, man or woman, is hired to do a job and is evaluated on doing that job, not on doing that job despite the desires or demands of their home life. Women executives have to be judged on how well they are meeting the strategic objectives of their organizations and end it at that.

Leading requires holding people accountable, which from time to time means being critical and direct about what you expect from someone.

My advice to young women is you have to compete in a workforce despite challenges you might face outside of work. It’s up to you to balance life’s demands with the job itself. The two can be balanced very effectively, but it’s not a boardroom discussion. The boardroom discussion is how effective we are at accomplishing the organization’s objectives.

Be A Leader

Being a leader in a credit union means leading by example. You have to work hard, set yourself to the mission, and listen to your staff. I try to set that good example and I believe women can be more effective at communicating with their employees than men. I chat with members of our staff regularly, I learn from them, and I think doing so makes everything better. Fostering these kinds of proactive outreach efforts tends to help the credit union run much more smoothly.

Hold People Accountable

Leading also requires holding people accountable, which from time to time means being critical and direct about what you expect from someone. This can be uncomfortable, but I’ve learned that it’s far better to confront lagging performance early on than to hope something will turn around without intervention it rarely does. You can be nice about the issue and you can start with a compliment, but you have to call out shortfalls when you see them. I once had to confront someone about their performance and felt I’d made an enemy in the process. In fact, this person later told me the way I coached her had a great impact on her career.

Women may sometimes find it harder to hold people accountable but we have to do it. If any leader fails to master this skill, their careers will eventually suffer. Women leaders need to know that they can do this and still be nurturing and caring. They may learn, as I did, that they’ve actually helped employees become more successful in the long run.

As told to Brooke C. Stoddard

July 16, 2014

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