Kate Lee grew up in one of the smallest towns in northern Minnesota Laporte, population 115.
There weren’t many employment opportunities in Onigum, so at age 14, she headed across Leech Lake for a job in a gift shop in touristy Walker, MN. There, she worked for a husband and wife team and quickly learned her first lessons about navigating different leadership styles.
“The wife and I were pretty much on the same page with my role in the gift shop,” Lee recalls. “The husband had a slightly different, stricter approach to how 14-year-old employees should work. I figured out different leaders expect different results, and you have to be able to adjust to that.”
As a college undergrad at Bemidji State University, Lee worked part-time as a teller at a local bank. She began her career in the credit union industry 12 years ago in the call center at Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union ($1.83B, St. Paul, Minn.). Less than a year later, she moved into marketing. She attained an MBA from Bethel University in 2008 and was promoted to director of marketing in 2014.
A wife and mother of three who finished her first marathon in May, Lee’s tenure with Affinity Plus has taught her about attracting and retaining new members, leading new teams, and the power in showing vulnerability.
On leadership style …
I want my reports to be open and honest and tell me what they’re thinking, specifically about my leadership. I’ve taken a number of different assessments, and the themes that emerge for me are developer, encourager, and listener.
I give people the space to explore and do what they’re good at and focus on their strengths. It’s OK to make mistakes and to figure things out on your own. Allowing that space is important. I pride myself on not being a micromanager but being involved enough to understand at a high level what’s going on.
You’ve got to know your team, how they fit together, and the best roles for them based on what they’re good at and what they want for their future. Good leaders might have a feel for that and might be connected, but great leaders are in tune with the inner workings of their employees and how to help them grow.
On what to look for in fellow leaders …
Working together and having a system of collaboration is important, and I’m lucky to work in a place where it’s not a competitive environment. We leverage one another’s strengths and recognize, I’m not good at this, I need so-and-so.’
Being able to acknowledge that and reach out for help is important. Part of that is being open to feedback and being vulnerable. You have to know what one another’s strengths and weaknesses are, and I don’t think that’s common in a lot of working environments.
On successful marketing programs …
A few years ago, our Ditch Your Bank marketing campaign worked well to bring in new members each month, bet we realized we were growing fast and had a lot of new members we needed to pay attention to. We shifted our focus on that group and launched new initiatives, such as a new member onboarding program, and refocused our marketing efforts on the members we serve and the communities where we serve them.
Good leaders might have a feel for their team members and how they fit together, but great leaders are in tune with the inner workings of their employees and how to help them grow.
On greatest accomplishments at Affinity Plus …
My accomplishments are centered on the team I led when I started as the marketing manager. We had six employees, including myself. Since I started leading the team, we’ve grown to 10 employees. Part of that is introducing the business development area, but I also look at each of them as individuals. They’ve come from different areas of the credit union and some are more recent employees. The way they all work together and have such a passion for this organization, credit unions, and marketing, I have to think it has something to do with my leadership.
On teaching moments …
When I was first promoted to manager, I hadn’t yet moved into my office and I was sitting in a cubicle space when one of the women came over and started talking about this problem she was facing. I was listening and said, Wow, so what do you think you’re going to do?’ And she said, That’s why I’m talking to you. You’re my leader now.’ That was one of those moments of, Oh yeah, I am your leader. Let’s talk about this.’
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On overcoming challenges …
I’ve learned to challenge the opinions of others, voice my concerns, and speak up for what I believe is right, especially when it involves what I’m responsible for or my team.
When it’s a bigger organizational change or maybe coming from the top, I have to come to the point where I can trust that change. Any organization goes through changes, and it doesn’t feel good. Change never feels great in the moment, not until you can take a step back and look beyond what you’re currently experiencing and see the benefits.
Leading to that is the hard part. I take a while to work through change in my own head. I’ve learned to work through that a little quicker so outwardly I can lead and be that positive example other people need in that moment of change or uncertainty.
On what the credit union industry needs …
There’s a huge focus on technology and digital and looking to the future. It’s important for credit unions to be in that space.
Along those lines, we need more credit union thought leaders. Instead of looking only at the banks and the bigger leaders in corporate America, I’d like to see credit unions included in that circle because they’re smart people, and I don’t think their voices are heard as much.
It comes back to how we treat people and how we approach business. Of course, everyone who owns a business, runs a business, or works in a business has to think about money and the bottom line. But there’s a different way to look at that when you’re focusing on the person walking in the door.
Credit unions are good at that. It’s more than focusing on our members they’re right and we want to do what’s best for them. It’s following through so it impacts every single decision you’re making in the organization. That’s special to credit unions, and there could be more of that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.