A Board Full Of Bosses: CEOs Turn Challenges Into Opportunity

From tweaking communication strategies to embracing diverse perspectives, here’s how three leaders are adjusting to new roles.

Top-Level Takeaways

  • New CEOs can struggle with reporting to many direct supervisors versus one.
  • Active listening helps new CEOs understand the varying perspectives of each board member. Communicating with them in the way they listen is important, too.
Brian Waldron, President & CEO, Dort Financial Credit Union

Newly minted chief executives know what it’s like to manage direct reports and answer to a single supervisor. But for new credit union CEOs, the chief seat means managing a team as well as reporting to one.

“I have seven different people with seven different viewpoints and opinions,” says Brian Waldron, CEO of Dort Financial Credit Union ($2.3B, Grand Blanc, MI). “It’s probably the hardest part of my job and something I did not anticipate when taking on this new role.”

Waldron joined Dort Financial in April 2022 after five years as the chief lending officer at Hudson Valley Credit Union ($7.1B, Poughkeepsie, NY). The new CEO prides himself on his ability to build board relationships and makes sure to talk with each board member before, during, and after meetings.

“What’s worked the most in this transition is to be personable so I can have hard and easy conversations alike at any given time,” he says. “In speaking with one person, I learn their communication style, which might not resonate with someone else. My lesson has been learning to say things in multiple ways.”

Other leaders consider the board just one more link in a chain of bosses dedicated to building the strongest credit union possible.
“I feel like I have nine board member bosses, 475 employee bosses, 120,000 member bosses, and a community of bosses,” says Laurie Butz, CEO of Capital Credit Union ($2.4B, Green Bay, WI).

Butz assumed the top job at Capital in November 2021 after several years as a senior vice president at Community First Credit Union ($5.6B, Neenah, WI). She says her job goes beyond pleasing any number of bosses and is instead more about listening to them, understanding their needs, including them in the development of the credit union’s strategic direction, and informing them throughout the process.

For Nathan Cape, CEO of Minnequa Works Credit Union ($240.3, Pueblo, CO), considering the multiple perspectives of board members has been the biggest change — and benefit — for him as a new chief executive.

Cape joined the southern Colorado cooperative in October 2022 after eight years with Aventa Credit Union ($296.9M, Colorado Springs, CO). He served first as president of operations at Minnequa Works before taking the helm as CEO in April 2023.

“The shift from reporting to a single direct supervisor to a board has brought a broader scope to decision-making,” he says. “The collaborative nature of board discussions encourages a more comprehensive approach to leadership and positively challenges potential frames of mind I might bring.”

Communication Is Key. Starting With The Chair.

According to Cape, navigating new board relationships requires attentive communication, strategic alignment, and the ability to navigate various perspectives. In fact, the importance of communication cannot be understated.

“The biggest difference in having multiple bosses is the amount and time spent communicating,” says Butz at Capital Credit Union. “When your boss is a board, its members only see you one, two, or at most three times a month for a few hours. That requires more clarity of communication to ensure they feel informed.”

Indeed, board meetings are the centerpiece of the governance relationship. To ensure these meetings run smoothly — with no unexpected surprises to throw off members and damage working relationships — Waldron at Dort Financial opens multiple lines of communication with each board member, especially the chair. This allows the group to digest information and make some headway ahead of time.

Laurie Butz, President & CEO, Capital Credit Union

“I make it a point to reach out to the board chair prior to the board meeting to go over anything in the board packet that could be controversial or that we need to have a conversation about,” he says. “I also extend the communication to everyone on the board and let them know they can connect with me individually before if there is anything that needs clarification.”

Butz says she uses a president’s report to highlight information that might be of interest to the board but isn’t a topic for the board meeting.

“Our board is diverse,” Butz says. “One member of the board might feel strongly about something; others might not. It is important to serve those diverse needs while also ensuring the board is unified in its direction and expectations so one comment, question, or suggestion doesn’t derail the intended focus.”

Pitfalls And Professional Growth

Building honest — and safe — communication requires steadfast focus, but it goes a long way in helping to avoid pitfalls.

For example, if Waldron notices a board member is behaving out of character, he reaches out after the board meeting and approaches them with any concerns — “jumping into the pitfall,” as he says. However, Waldron also says his board members are good about having difficult conversations among themselves and coming to a consensus.

A newly minted chief executive uses intentional listening to build connections and spark growth at his Michigan cooperative. Read more in “CEO Onboarding: Brian Waldron, Dort Financial Credit Union.” 

Scorecards, dashboards, and metrics also help credit unions avoid pitfalls and overcome potential conflict. Data-based insights have proven to be crucial at Minnequa Works. There, data-driven decision-making aligns with the board’s expectations of informed governance.

Nathan Cape, CEO, Minnequa Works Credit Union

“Supporting strategies and decisions with relevant data not only enhances credibility but also provides a solid foundation for discussions,” CEO Cape says.

Butz at Capital also has found meaningful metrics can bring together culture and governance in perhaps unexpected ways. She recounts reviewing a proposed scorecard with her board as an example.

“We had metrics on it for member and employee experience, community, growth, financial performance, and operational excellence,” she says. “One board member felt strongly the employee experience and community metrics were not necessary.”

The board member thought metrics about experience or community should be a part of everyday operations. Butz replied her perception was that culture — which these metrics spoke to — was critically important to the success of the organization and an integral part of Capital’s core values. She then asked the rest of the board if she had that wrong.

“The other board members chimed in to talk about the value of the culture and the metrics on the scorecard relating to that,” Butz recalls. “After a brief discussion, the board member realized how important those elements were to the scorecard and got behind keeping them on.”

Seizing The Opportunity Begins With Seeing It

Diverse opinions and lively discussion offer the opportunity to better understand one other, strengthen the CEO relationship with the board, and reinforce the board’s own relationship with the credit union’s guiding principles. Leveraging those opportunities, though, begins with recognizing them — and recognizing opportunities begins with listening.

Butz says she has learned to listen to understand, not react or respond. And when she thinks she understands, she then digs deeper because often what she assumes her board members mean is not what they actually mean at all.

Listen before acting, and honor the past while embracing the future — words of wisdom to help a new chief executive settle into the role. Read more in “CEO Onboarding: Laurie Butz, Capital Credit Union.”

Which leads to another lesson learned: slow down to go fast.

“Make sure everyone is onboard before taking off if you want to avoid having a mess to clean up after the fact,” the veteran credit union senior manager says. “I’ve always known this to be true, but there’s so much noise to sift through in the role of CEO that it’s even more essential. And it must be intentional. That happens through organized channels for discussion at all levels.”

That approach for working with a board also yields personal benefits for the first-time CEO as an evolving professional. Each interaction, whether positive or negative, presents opportunity for growth and development, says Cape at Minnequa Works.

“Embracing this mindset has allowed me to approach challenges with a sense of curiosity and resilience, viewing them as valuable learning experiences rather than setbacks,” he says. “The board’s support and encouragement have reinforced this perspective, creating an environment where I feel empowered to learn and evolve as a leader.”

March 25, 2024

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