Lessons In Leadership: James Wileman

The CEO at Credit Union 1 discusses his credit union's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

James Wileman is the CEO of Credit Union 1($1.1B, Anchorage, AK), a position he has held since January 2018. Here, he answers Callahan’s leadership questions about his credit union’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Between the beginning of 2020 and now, how have your operations changed?


Credit Union 1
Data as of 03.31.20

HQ: Anchorage, AK
MEMBERS: 86,098
ROA: 0.79%

James Wileman: We always strive to make decisions that put people first. We closed our branch lobbies in March before the official mandates were made. When we were allowed to reopen in May, we didn’t rush to do so we reopened on June 1. We spent the months in between expanding our e-service capabilities so members could get the services they need from us while we cared for the health of our members and employees.

Within our e-service additions, we introduced a video appointment functionality through Zoom, where members could schedule conversations with our staff easily and quickly. We also introduced curbside pickup for some items, such as cashier’s checks or debit cards, things you would typically walk into a branch to get.

Despite the times, we’re finding a way to make things work.

What were some of the first leadership challenges you faced?

JW: Our first challenge was in the logistics for moving nearly our entire team into a remote work environment. We had approximately 30 remote workers prior to the pandemic and had to transition most of the remaining workforce to remote in a few weeks. We had an understanding of what it would take to set up our team, we just had to get laptops and VPN licenses. Our team then had to adjust to an at-home environment.

There were other decisions we made quickly. For front-line staff who worked the drive-thrus, who we couldn’t send home, we provided hazard pay to reflect their contribution to our credit union. Then, behind the scenes, we waived fees on our checking accounts for the second half of March and all of April. That cost us fee income, but we knew Alaskans were going to need money in their accounts and we didn’t want them deciding between groceries and overdraft fees.

How has the pandemic changed the way you communicate with members and staff?

James Wileman, CEO, Credit Union 1

JW: It’s become more digital. I mentioned Zoom for appointment scheduling, but we use it for internal connections, too. We use it for board meetings and employee check-ins as well as milestone celebrations. We tend to celebrate five, 10, and 15-year anniversaries with a headquarters party, but we’ve put them on video during the pandemic. They’ve been great and even more attended than those in person.

We’re also using the chat feature of Slack to keep in touch internally rather than email. We’ve created Slack channels for corporate communication, individual department use, and even fun ones for shout-outs or dad jokes.

We stay active on social media, as well.

How have you evolved as a leader?

JW: I’ve had to learn how to do the things I already do well even better. I’ve looked to minimize mistakes but value the takeaways that come from them. The pandemic is unknown territory for everyone, and it’s not realistic to expect that every decision you make will be the right one. I try to listen to my staff and be transparent with the decisions I make. I want to learn and evolve in how we do things so, tomorrow, those decisions are even better.

How do you find the things you want to make better and go out and get them done? If you can be proactive and make those improvements for your employees and your members, you’ll find success.

James Wileman, CEO, Credit Union 1

What has surprised you most about your members and employees during this time?

JW: I am surprised how well Alaskans, including our employees, adapted to staying at home. Our team had to learn how to do their jobs from home while maintaining teamwork and communication.

Also, we closed our branch lobbies and visits dropped by a large margin, but we didn’t lose overall transactions. Our members quickly shifted online and to our member service center, which took more calls in April than during the month the Alaska Permanent Dividend Fund is typically paid.

Everyone up here has been ready and willing to press forward and make things work, giving us this sense of business as usual even in the middle of a pandemic.

Based on the operational changes you’ve made, what have you found is a better way of doing business than it was before?

JW: We have been pleased with our Zoom video appointment scheduling and curbside pickup. We’ll iterate both of those to make them even better in the future. They provide convenience and connection to all our members, even those who live in the most remote parts of our state.

On the internal side, we’ll provide laptops or virtual desktops to our staff so we don’t have to scramble for machines in the future. We’ll be more prepared to just turn on the VPN rather than hurrying to purchase 150 laptops.

What will the future hold for your credit union?

JW: We’ve always worked hard to grow, adapt, and provide excellent service to our members and Alaskans. We have this phrase:We make our own magic. We put our members first financially and we maintain a mindset of continuous improvement. The future is bright, we just need to keep doing great things and not shy away from tough decisions.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned from this experience that will better prepare you for similar situations in the future?

JW: You don’t get to control everything, but you do get to control how you react. More importantly, you should become proactive to find and do the things that need to happen. That might be challenging, but we’ve found it’s a far better mentality than having things act upon you. Now that this is the situation we are in, how do we make things work better for our employees and our members and actually get it done?

We call it getting to a place where we are playing offense not defense. How do we make things work today, knowing things will be different in a week or a month?

What one piece of advice do you have for other leaders?

JW: If you’re reading this, you’ve made it. And that’s great. Now, how do you find the things you want to make better and go out and get them done? If you can be proactive and make those improvements for your employees and your members, you’ll find success.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This article appeared originally in Credit Union Strategy & Performance. Read More Today.

June 30, 2020

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