Erin Mendez On Leadership

Erin Mendez, CEO at Patelco Credit Union, describes how changing a culture requires tough decisions, collaborative work, and faith in those around you.

The way she tells it, Erin Mendez fell into her career while working as a part-time teller at American Savings Bank to help pay her way through college.

Rod Flowers
Erin Mendez, Chief Executive Officer, Patelco

After achieving the rank of senior vice president of retail banking, she left American Savings and worked stints as the senior vice president of operations and chief information officer at Western Financial Bank and later Health Net Inc. before settling in as the executive vice president at SchoolsFirst Federal Credit Union ($11.4B, Santa Ana, CA).

Two years ago, Mendez joined Patelco Credit Union ($4.4B, Pleasanton, CA) as CEO during a time of major transition for the institution. Within 90 days, she rolled out plans to discontinue a controversial incentive compensation plan tied to the sale of Patelco products and subsequently set goals to cut controllable expenses by 10%.

Here, Mendez discusses living and leading cultural change, how to motivate others, and what inspires her about working in the credit union industry.


patelco Credit union
Data as of 06.30.15

  • HQ: Pleasanton, CA
  • ASSETS: $4.4B
  • MEMBERS: 291,841
  • BRANCHES: 37
  • 12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 6.55%
  • 12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 12.16%
  • ROA: 0.88%

On Banks Versus Credit Unions

The credit union movement really is banking with a soul. You get to do things that really help people and contribute to their financial well-being. When I was in banking, I saw a lot of rightsizing and a lot of good people being let go to provide a financial return to the shareholders. That never creates the financial situation you think it will on paper when you contract and expand and lose good people in the process, it doesn’t create enduring value for the shareholders.

On making tough decisions

It’s not so much making the decisions that is difficult, it’s executing them. After I joined Patelco, one of the first things I did was eliminate product sales incentive plans. We had people making a lot of money on those products who were not happy, and most of them left, which I’m completely OK with. But I also think that decision was pivotal to change the culture of Patelco and to realign it back to being a credit union that’s here to serve the members and act in their best interests.

On her leadership style

I would say I’m collaborative and inclusive, but I am an absolute believer that you need high standards and expectations the higher the better. When it comes to people, I like to think of the glass as half-full. When it comes to work, I think the glass tends to be half-empty. I don’t kid myself about the good stuff I do. For my first job, I had a one-and-a-half hour commute. I used that time to examine what I could have done better. I still debrief on the commute, but sometimes I’m now also debriefing at 2 a.m. when I’d rather be sleeping.

On inspiring others

Years ago, when I was at American Savings, I worked with a young girl who had a lot of potential but little confidence. So, I assigned her a six-month project, one of the biggest we had. By month two, she was in my office almost every other day, crying and saying she couldn’t do it. But I supported her and kept her focused. By the end, it was a wildly successful project.

About 15 years later, she took me to lunch and told me that project had changed her life both professionally and personally. It turned out during that time she had been in an abusive relationship at home. So you never know how you might help someone just by reaching out.

That’s what credit unions can do for their members, too. There are a lot of things we don’t know about our members, but we can make a difference.

On the principles of good management

Above all else, you need to demonstrate integrity and honesty, and back that up with every action. Don’t waste your time on activities or discussions that have no value, including what I call getting caught up in the soap opera of things.

Make people a priority, whether they’re your members or your team members. Tell people what you’re doing, tell them how you’re going to do it, and find out how you can help them contribute. Also, you’ve got to inspect what you expect and be willing to constantly course correct. You’ve got to be interested in and take the time to recognize the work people do because if you’re not, why are they doing it?

As told to E.C. Harrison

November 2, 2017

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