Lessons In Leadership: Kristy Hesse

The chief human resources officer at Community First Credit Union discusses her credit union's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kristy Hesse is the chief human resources officer of Community First Credit Union ($3.6B, Appleton, WI), a position she has held since March 2019. Here, she answers Callahan’ s leadership questions about her credit union s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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


Community First Credit Union
Data as of 03.31.20

HQ: Appleton, WI
MEMBERS: 141,872
ROA: 0.96%

Kristy Hesse: Wisconsin had a Safer at Home order, not a complete Stay at Home. We moved to remote work, and branch lobbies were open by appointment only. We leveraged DocuSign and other virtual capabilities. We re all getting to be experts on Zoom, Teams, and WebEx.

I oversee human resources and training, and although we briefly paused some training and development, we didn t stop recruiting at all. We held remote interviews, and when we conducted new employee orientation, we did as much of the onboarding virtually as we could. What we couldn t do virtually we moved to an empty office where we could control the number of people in the room, adhere to social distancing rules, and take frequent breaks to sanitize hands and surfaces.

We decided it was more important to plan for the future by hiring talent than it was to control for operating expenses. It was a leap of faith, but we made the leap.

What were some of the first leadership challenges you faced?

KH: For me, personally, it was getting the call that my son s school was closing. Overnight, everyone on our team had to juggle professional obligations with personal situations while trying to serve our members. Plus, everyone was dealing with a plethora of emotions.

We had to understand the new laws and resources and translate them back to our team. We were used to preparing for things months in advance; with this, we had days. You know when you re so busy you don t have time to panic or overthink it? That was this.

We relied on one another. And, when we didn t have the answers, we were out there looking for solutions. We might not have always been in the same boat, but we were in the same waters, working to keep afloat.

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

Kristy Hesse, CHRO, Community First Credit Union

KH: As a senior team, we held more frequent meetings and communicated back to the whole organization. Our staff had questions we didn t always have answers to, so, sometimes, we were more or less cascading takeaways from our meetings. It could be five sentences or five paragraphs, the important thing was that it was frequent.

With people out of the office, we had to change modes of communication. We didn t have the option to run into one another in the hallways, so we relied on email, video chat, and the capability in our HRIS system to broadcast messages. We did find video helpful to stay connected; face time is important, even if it is virtual.

There was a lot to take in, so we tried to break things down to their simplest form and be specific on required actions, including deadlines, and who to ask if they had further questions.

How have you evolved as a leader?

KH: When I introduce something, I like to have the confidence that it s well thought-out and I understand its potential impact. I haven t had that luxury these past few months. I ve had to rely heavily on those around me to help research new rules and regulations, which pushed me out of my comfort zone. I had already established strong relationships with my staff, which was a benefit. I didn t have to build anything while we were in crisis mode. That helped me feel comfortable in the uncomfortable.

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

KH: We didn t know how members would react as we changed how we did business longer lines in the drive-thrus and more banking over the phone. It s been surprising how kind and gracious they ve been, some have even sent flowers and said they look forward to seeing us when we re fully open again.

For the team, we ve always tried to help one another during difficult times. That s been true these past few months. Branch staff have stepped in to answer phone calls, which has pushed our wait times to historic lows. Team members have helped in new areas, which has allowed us to stay true to who we are and support our community. I am proud of our whole team.

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

KH: We ve always been hands-on relationship-builders, but this crisis has pushed us to consider how we can do things more creatively going forward, like being more open to remote work.

Then, I hope the level of collaboration we ve seen during these past few months can continue. We had to drop everything and work on solutions, and it was good to see we could do that.

What will the future hold for your credit union?

KH: We re in a good position to move forward and maintain a focus on our community. It s in our name Community First. And although that needs to stay a part of who we are, we need to put more agility or creative thought into how we accomplish it.

I had already established strong relationships with my staff, which was a benefit. I didn t have to build anything while we were in crisis mode. That helped me feel comfortable in the uncomfortable.

Kristy Hesse, CHRO, Community First Credit Union

I m eager to reflect on what we did, what we changed, and think about what we don t want to bring back. We had to make some decisions quickly. But, perfect is the enemy of good. When we can slow down and think things through, we ll be able to recognize what s truly important and valuable moving forward.

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

KH: One of my team members used the phrase, give some grace, and I think that s great. Give yourself and others some grace during periods of uncertainty because everyone is going through their own personal challenges.

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

KH: Be the buffalo.

There s a story: Buffalo and cows are related. But when a storm s coming, cows slowly try to avoid the storm whereas the buffalo runs toward it. The moral is, by running toward the storm, you re in the storm for a shorter period of time and you get to the other side faster. When they run from it, cows can t fully escape it and end up in the storm longer.

As it relates to the pandemic, we decided we needed to go toward the storm. We relied on our credit union peers locally and nationwide, too, to get through this faster and stronger.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

June 29, 2020

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