The timing was right for both Brian Waldron and Dort Financial Credit Union ($1.4B, Grand Blanc, MI) when the mid-Michigan cooperative chose him to succeed Vicki Hawkins as its next president and CEO in April 2022.
Hawkins retired after 36 years at the Flint-area institution, and Waldron assumed the top job for the first time in a 23-year credit union career that began during his college days at Miami of Ohio.
According to Waldron, Hawkins left the credit union in great shape. Dort had just culminated a three-year strategic plan that included a switch to a state charter and an expansion of its field of membership to anyone who lives, worships, works, or goes to school in the state of Michigan
Before joining Dort, Waldron had served as the chief lending officer at Hudson Valley Credit Union ($6.3B, Poughkeepsie, NY) since 2017. He served in the same role at Scott Credit Union ($1.7B, Edwardsville, IL) for five years before that. And prior to joining Scott, Waldron spent a dozen years in a variety of branching, collections, and operational roles at four Ohio credit unions.
After nearly a year in the top spot, Waldron has learned a thing or two about onboarding a CEO. Here, he shares his insight.
“Things that were just my ideas before are now my decision. Ultimately, the buck does stop here.”
On getting to know front-line employees …
I went in with an open-door policy and was intentional about talking to people while I try to create a relaxing environment. I encourage every new CEO to talk to your staff. Randomly pop into branches and trainings. On Friday mornings, I walk around our building and wish everyone a happy weekend. I don’t want people to be nervous about seeing me in the hallways.
On getting to know leaders …
CU QUICK FACTS
Dort Financial Credit Union
DATA AS OF 09.30.22
HQ: Grand Blanc, MI
NET WORTH: 14.5%
It’s natural for the executive team to feel some trepidation when a new CEO comes in. Make the effort to understand their fears. One thing I asked everybody was, “What do you hope I do, and what do you hope I don’t do?” Some of the conversations were strategic, and some of them were more personal, but I think I was able to calm some fears and create some value in their minds for what I was bringing to the table.
I came in as we were wrapping up a three-year strategic plan. With that in mind, we looked at our mission, values, and vision. Does where we want to go now line up with all of those? We had some good internal conversations around all of that.
On getting to know the board …
The biggest difference for me as a CEO versus my previous jobs is my interactions with the board. You need to have an open line of communication with your board chair from the start. You also must make the effort to establish relationships with each individual board member, just like you do with your staff. That can include things like getting together for double dates, just to get to know each other as people.
I sat down with each board member for what I call “20 questions.” I took notes and summarized their responses. Then, I wrote emails afterward thanking them for their time. That’s helped me establish a communication style with them, one based on trust and transparency.
Going forward, they might not always like my answers, but we all understand our fiduciary responsibility. Understanding each other’s personal communication style helps us through tough conversations, and I always send an email after a conversation like that thanking them for what we just worked through together.
On speaking up last and deciding first …
My experience so far has reinforced to me how important it is to be the last person in the room to speak. I’ve learned over the past two decades — and especially at Hudson Valley where I learned so much from Mary Madden — that your words as the CEO can steer a conversation into group speak.
That’s not what I want here at Dort. You get far more diverse thinking and sharing of ideas if you speak last. I’ve also learned that things that were just my ideas before are now my decision. Ultimately, the buck does stop here.
On starting the buck …
I’m a firm believer that you can be good at several things but only great at one. I asked our team what we want to be great at first, and we chose lending. We have a new vice president of lending who helped us put some new programs in place and turn up the energy in the lending area. When we started, we were at about 82% loan to share. Now, just a few months later, we’re at about 95%.
“I don’t have a set group of peers inside the walls of our credit union. That’s why building these relationships is so important.”
On being lonely at the top …
I can see why others feel like it’s lonely to be a first-time CEO. That hasn’t been the case for me because of how we’re working as an executive team and because of the relationships I’ve built with the board.
That said, there are times when the enormity of the corner office can be interesting. I don’t have a set group of peers inside the walls of our credit union. I look over my shoulder, and there’s no one there. That’s why building these relationships is so important. I’m trying to do things a little differently, change the culture a bit. That requires trust and respect among all of us. Building and maintaining that begins with me.
On the first 90 days …
The first 90 days are unique. For the first 30, just listen. To your board. To your staff. You don’t need to make changes right away. That’s an easy way to create trepidation. Just sit back and take it all in while you formulate your plans.
Then, when you get to that 90-day mark, you can have in place the actions you want to take. People get excited about having a new CEO, but after a while, they want to see change and action, too. Doing it right helps ensure they all share in the excitement.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.