Griff O’Brien On Leadership

Griff O’Brien, senior vice president and chief membership officer at Advantis Credit Union, details his recipe for cultural success at a large credit union.
Griff O’Brien, SVP/Chief Membership Officer, Advantis Credit Union

Griff O’Brien, senior vice president and chief membership officer, Advantis Credit Union ($1.2B, Milwaukie, OR) began his career in financial services as a bank teller. In his early career, he worked at three of the country’s largest banks, moving from teller into management where he became responsible for five different branches and eventually found himself on the ground floor of the call center revolution.

His affinity for technology drew him to the world of online banking, and as a vice president at U.S. bank, O’Brien developed the ability to sell new accounts, products, and services across the Internet.

After experiencing a rocky merger, O’Brien decided it was a time for a change in sector and culture. He joined OnPoint Credit Union, then moved to FirstTech Credit Union. And in 2013, Advantis’ CEO Bob Corwin recruited O’Brien to join the executive team.

On his leadership style …

My approach is to develop people, trust people, include people, and empower people.

I’m geared toward getting the right people on board, getting them the right tools and training, giving them clear objectives, and getting out of their way. I value everyone and their contribution. I don’t believe in meddling and in micromanaging, but I do check in.

On what he looks for in other leaders …

I admire people who speak up in a constructive manner, who can engage in a strong discussion, but in the end support the group decision, whether or not it coincides with their own thinking.

It’s important to me to work with leaders who respect others and recognize their value. We all have our strengths and foibles. I look for where strengths compliment my weaknesses and vice versa.

On what makes a successful employee …

At all levels, I look for people with the ability and the drive to work independently. They identify issues and pursue solutions on their own. Maybe they check in with a manager, but they’re proactive.

Strong interpersonal skills are crucial, both within the organization and working with members.

For management-level employees, it’s important they set a tone. They must be role models, able to stay calm under pressure, and have respect for everyone. I had one manager who showed respect in front of the staff, but would speak ill of them behind closed doors. That doesn’t work. There needs to be heartfelt respect for everyone.

We can be creative even in a fairly conservative, regulated business like ours.

On what inspires him …


Advantis Credit Union
DATA AS OF 06.30.15

HQ: Milwaukie, OR
ASSETS: $ 1.2B
MEMBERS: 59,933
ROA: 1.14%

If I wasn’t working in this industry I would be a full-time musician. When I go home, I play piano and compose music. This taps into the right brain and balances the left brain work I do most of the day.

I love the outdoors, hiking, and skiing. I also read a lot of books. Colin Powell is somebody I read about who I admire. He was able to stand up and speak his mind when he was the only one speaking.

On a favorite professional accomplishment …

Advantis used to be siloed.’ Each division or area worked somewhat autonomously, with poor communication across them. I’ve helped foster cultural change, improve communication, and build partnerships on projects. It’s helped transform the tone of the organization. My fellow leaders and I no longer work in a vacuum. We communicate regularly and voice our dissent if that’s what’s needed. We work on finding solutions and moving things forward.

On making difficult decisions …

At Advantis, I made the decision to get out of the safe deposit box business. And that was hard to do. We reached out to members, gave them a really long time to adjust, and tried to be as flexible as we could to help them through the transition. We had a couple members who were upset; otherwise, it was successful.

On the importance of listening …

In my first branch manager role, I had a real a-ha moment. I’m an open, candid, nice guy type of person. I had a woman who worked for me, and everything seemed like we had a good working relationship. When she moved on to a new organization, her exit interview feedback was that she was frustrated with some things I had or hadn’t done. If I had known that, I would have made changes.

I was shocked she didn’t come to me and tell me what her concerns were. The eye-opener for me because I view myself as really approachable was don’t assume people are being open with you.

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On introducing change …

In one disarrayed department, I jumped in with both feet and started making wholesale changes rapidly. I learned these changes were way too fast for the staff and created a lot of challenges for them. I didn’t have to change the department overnight. I could have done a better job meeting with staff and incorporating their thoughts and ideas to help them through the transition.

On thinking outside of the box …

When I was a branch manager, the regional manager was introducing a new challenge and promotion we were going to run. To do so, he came in with a tape recorder and had worked out an entire sequence. He started with, what I need from all of you is and then clicked the tape recorder that played The Beatles’ song Help. Then he’d stop it, say something else, and bring in another song. He went through his entire dialog doing this.

It was the first time I’d seen something so creative in what was then a stodgy banking business. I learned we can be creative even in a fairly conservative, regulated business like ours. There are a lot of people doing a lot of creative things. We should get more creative and up-to-date with what we’re doing.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

September 10, 2015

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