Dave Larson On Leadership

The CEO of Affinity Plus discusses the importance of transparency, the benefit of leading a different kind of team, and the power behind the movement’s voices.

A college internship for a check printer and early customer service experiences selling MCIF and online banking systems to credit unions led Dave Larson down a nontraditional path to credit union leadership.

Dave Larson, CEO, Affinity Plus FCU

After joining Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union ($2.2B, Saint Paul, MN) in 2002 to lead its branch network, Larson focused primarily on member and employee-facing issues before becoming CEO 11 years later. Here, he discusses the importance of transparency, the benefit of leading a different kind of team, and the strength behind the many voices that make up the credit union movement.

On joining the credit union movement …

After college I joined a small Minnesota company that worked only with credit unions, which I always found to be friendly and welcoming. I led a sales group and traveled a lot, but once I got married and started a family, I wanted a change. Affinity Plus had an opportunity to lead its branch network and took a chance on me.

On leadership style and traits of great leaders …

My parents were both teachers and instilled values that are great leadership traits — work hard, treat people right, have fun.

Great leaders understand that employees are paramount to organizational success. I often say that employees are our secret sauce. All people want to be heard and feel cared about. People aren’t interested in how much you know until you can demonstrate that you’re listening and have genuine interest in them.

I also believe deeply in transparency. Great leaders are vulnerable and can admit when they make mistakes. Then we can talk about it, learn and get better together.

On finding inspiration …

Every month I host a 90-minute Lunch with Dave that allows me to hear feedback, questions, and ideas from employees. We also host quarterly webinars, share board meeting summaries, and send weekly emails to ensure the organization’s initiatives and priorities are understood. We want employees to feel informed and see the big picture.

I also coach my daughter’s hockey team. There are a lot of parallels between coaching a youth hockey team and leading Affinity Plus. I probably learn more from those teenage girls than they learn from me. They drive me to be a better coach, person, and role model.

CreditUnions.com’s On Leadership series spotlights notable leaders across the credit union landscape by discovering how they joined the movement, learning what makes them tick, uncovering career lessons and successes, and seeking advice for the future of the movement. Read the whole series today.

On offering real communication …

Last year, in response to bad practices by big banks, I sent an email to our entire membership that included my direct phone number and email. I asked members to let me know if they felt that Affinity Plus had ever acted in an unethical manner. I received 550 responses the most common response was, Thank you! This is why I bank with you.

Of course, we also heard from some who weren’t happy with service levels or loan decisions. We researched issues that were raised and took action where needed even discontinuing a third-party insurance product based on member feedback.

Members know we’re not perfect. We try to be authentic in our engagement, and they recognize it and appreciate it.

On technological realities and difficult decisions …

We embarked on a journey to upgrade seven key technology systems, starting in 2017 and culminating with a new core system on Oct. 1, 2018. Change is hard for people, but we strongly believed our members deserved better functionality and a better digital experience. We built a new mobile app based on what members said they wanted, and in two months’ time, adoption has been quick. Our app store rating jumped from 1.5 stars to 4.8 (out of 5), and we’ll continually release app updates with new features.

I’m confident we’re doing the right thing. These changes will be better for our members and our employees, which was the goal from the start.

On what the industry needs more, or less, of …

I’d like to see less focus on how rules and regulations impact individual credit unions and more focus on the member impact. We can’t lose sight of the individual members who make up our industry; they have phenomenal stories to tell. Once people learn about credit unions and experience the difference for themselves, they embrace it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

July 1, 2018

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