Joy Wilson On Leadership

Joy Wilson, chief administrative officer of ORNL Federal Credit Union, talks about identifying talent and competencies, collaborating, and managing through dynamic change.
Joy Wilson, Chief Administrative Officer, ORNL Federal Credit Union

Like many credit union executives, Joy Wilson began her career on the front line. Twenty-six years ago she worked as a teller before moving into to lending, branch management, and marketing at a community bank. Approximately 15 years ago, however, she accepted a job at UT Federal Credit Union in Knoxville, TN, to add call center management and later accounting to her bio.

But Wilson’s introduction to the credit union industry was more than just another career move. After years of working in the profit-driven banking environment, something about the credit union industry clicked with her.

I deeply appreciate the differentiation between the credit union industry and the banking industry, Wilson says. I think we attract people who have the mindset of giving back to the community. It takes that kind of person to be a success in the credit union industry.

In 2003, Wilson accepted a post at ORNL Federal Credit Union ($1.7B, Knoxville, TN), originally founded in 1948 to serve employees of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and now serving all residents of 16 counties in Central Eastern Tennessee. Within two years, she was promoted to associate vice president. Four years later, she became vice president. And four years after that, she assumed the role of senior vice president and chief people officer, where she is responsible for HR and training.


Data as of 06.30.15

  • HQ: Knoxville, TN
  • ASSETS: $1.7B
  • MEMBERS: 148,027
  • BRANCHES: 32
  • 12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 7.03%
  • 12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 7.18%
  • ROA: 0.51%

Her role recently expanded to chief administrative officer, which brings under her purview compliance, enterprise risk management, and security. A consummate HR professional, she holds designations from the HR Certification Institute and the Society of Human Resources Management. She also served as president elect of the Smoky Mountain Chapter of the Association for Talent Development.

In her spare time, Wilson served two city council terms for the nearby city of Norris, where she currently serves as a city planning commissioner and as a Board of Zoning and Appeals member.

At ORNL Federal Credit Union, we ask: How are we making the community better; how are we helping our members? she says. I think we’re more successful whenever we can take our passion and align it with what we’re doing.

Here, Wilson shares the keys to career success and how to put the right person in the right job

On management styles …

I don’t consider myself a micro-manager. I’m the kind of leader who looks around at the talent I have and the talent I need. I look for individuals who have strengths I don’t have. I lead through other people. I empower them to get the job done and then get out of the way. People will follow a leader they trust and know are championing them.

On identifying talent …

In 2005-06, we were at the end of a temp employee arrangement when someone asked me if I wanted that person in our department. She was quiet and positive, but no one knew much about her. I had an instinct and I brought her into our department, and she did a phenomenal job. I would give her something to do, and she would turn it around in minutes or less than a day; she was this hidden treasure. Soon other people were coming to me and saying, We want her on our team.’ I believed in her and she surpassed my expectations. She is still with us today, playing a significant role in the credit union.

It’s fulfilling to see that type of transformation. It wasn’t because of me. It was the partnership I had with her. I gave her the support and the tools she needed and she flourished. She became what she always should have been.

On building successful teams …

No single leader can achieve everything on his or her own, and the best leaders understand that. Leaders make sure they have a balanced leadership team. The No. 1 competency I look for in other leaders is the ability to collaborate effectively. Next on my list would be effective communication. If I work with leaders with a high level of proficiency in those areas, I sync well with them.

As an HR team or a training team, if you can’t point back to an organizational understanding of what the best person for the job should look like, then you’re not really helping anyone.

Our SVP team at the credit union is a good example. We bring diverse skillsets, diverse perspectives, and diverse experiences to the table. We all understand if we don’t collaborate well, we’re not going to be the best we can be as a company.

On understanding roles and competencies …

As an HR team or a training team, if you can’t point back to an organizational understanding of what the best person for the job should look like, then you’re not really helping anyone. As a company, we didn’t have a good understanding of what we were looking for in employees at any level in any job. How do we hire to that? How do we develop to that? How do we promote to that? How do we evaluate to that? So we had focus groups, employee surveys, and in-person interviews with the leadership and the board to gauge what we as a company prioritize as competencies.

That work became the foundation for the organizational and leadership competencies we established this year for every leader level. My staff developed the competencies and the board and executive management approved them. We developed competencies for leader 1, 2, 3, and 4. Supervisors, managers, AVPs, VPs, SVPs, and the president all fit into one of those leader levels. Then we started with job family competencies for every job family in the company.

These competencies have become the structure for how we hire, develop, promote, and evaluate. It keeps everybody on the same page, so when somebody says, Hey, we need a high performer,’ we can go to these competencies and all see what we mean by that. It’s a beautiful thing because we are able to hold everyone from the president to the branch staff to those standards.

On inspirational people …

I look around in my community which could be the neighborhood, national, or global community at people who have proven themselves as leaders. What are they championing? How are they building trust with people to get the work done? I’m always looking outside my walls at how people prove themselves.

For example, an employee and her friend started something called Beds for Kids. They go into our local community and work with Head Start and rescue missions to find children who do not have a bed of their own and are sleeping on the floor. They raise money and buy brand new beds and bedding for these children. She’s a 24-year-old woman who has done this with her friend from college. Learning about what she’s done in addition to working a full-time job how she’s doing something greater than herself that’s an incredible inspiration.

On soliciting, and listening to, feedback …

Whenever you think you have the perfect idea, you need to share it. Time and again I’ve seen people, including me, who think they have the ideal solution to something, but if they don’t get input, it will fall flat. People who have a different perspective from you are going to come up with ways to make it better.

On making tough decisions …

I tell my team members to be careful when you say you want more responsibility because with responsibility comes burden. In my role, I have to evaluate circumstances and make decisions that nobody wants to make.

I can’t always share the specifics as to why a difficult decision was made, but I do gain strength during those times by the fact that I have colleague and leaders and team members who trust me to do what needs to be done in a thoughtful manner. That kind of trust and supportive environment has a ripple effect that keeps teams and organizations strong during times when it’s not obvious why certain decisions were made.

In the financial industry, we’re seeing the necessity to adapt and change more than we have historically. People tend to think last about the fact that the people in human resource are a part of the business strategy. You have to consider how you’re hiring and how you’re staffing as part of your strategy.

On industry collaboration …

I’d like to see more collaboration and sharing of best practices. When my vice president of human resources and I went to the Callahan Roundtable last year, that’s what it was all about. I’ve gone to plenty of conferences over the years, been on lots of committees and boards, but that roundtable was a free exchange of ideas, lessons learned, best practices, questions and answers, and idea sharing.

We’ve now got this whole network that freely shares from their point of reference and their expertise that’s meaningful collaboration. That’s something we can reflect on today, and it shapes our practices for tomorrow. I wish that setting for the roundtable could be replicated on a bigger scale in the credit union industry. I wish more people were involved in that type of dialog because we’re not threatening one another, we’re helping and supporting one another.

As told to E.C. Harrison

October 19, 2015

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