Lessons In Leadership: Rick Anderson

The COO at Sandia Laboratory Federal Credit Union discusses his credit union's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Rick Anderson is the senior vice president and chief operating officer of Sandia Laboratory Federal Credit Union ($2.7B, Albuquerque, NM), a position he has held since June 2014. 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?


Sandia Laboratory FCU
Data as of 03.31.20

HQ: Albuquerque, NM
MEMBERS: 110,287
ROA: 0.94%

Rick Anderson: We ended up deploying approximately two-thirds of our overall staff to remote work when the pandemic hit. The remaining one-third were folks who worked in the branches or back-office and had to do their work in the office.

We’ve had to learn a number of tricks to conduct meetings virtually. We’re based in Albuquerque but have a few branches in California, so we’ve done training and project meetings on WebEx. This was really the first time manager-level employees had to use their video meeting capability, so there was learning from person to person. It’s been good overall even if we are looking forward to a day when we are all unmuted again.

What were some of the first leadership challenges you faced?

RA: There was the technical challenge of equipping people for remote work, but there was also the emotional weight of knowing how worried some employees were about the virus some of our team couldn’t go home fast enough.

One of the bigger decisions we made was what to do with jobs that couldn’t be done from home. We had to get comfortable with the fact that we were going to pay some people to stay home even though they couldn’t do their normal job. For example, we closed our branch lobbies but didn’t need all those employees to support our drive-thrus and didn’t want to force folks to take indefinite PTO. We ultimately broke them into A and B teams that alternated one week working the drive-thru and the next at home. We were basically buying insurance to ensure one group of employees would be healthy in case the other group had a sickness.

The decision was uneven in its impact because we couldn’t do that for every area. Working through that created its own challenges.

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

Rick Anderson, COO, Sandia Laboratory FCU

RA: During the first few weeks of the pandemic, I wrote a daily email to the whole staff. I knew if people were waiting for a policy edict or a decision from on high, they wouldn’t be getting answers fast enough.

I wrote about what was happening in senior leadership meetings, the obstacles we were facing, our plans for dealing with the pandemic, and the rationale behind certain decisions. Additionally, I promoted teambuilding and talked about good hygiene practices and mental and physical health and wellness.

At one point, I suggested people working from home send me a picture of their remote set-up, which turned into everyone sending me pictures of their pets sitting at their workstations. The email succeeded in being informative and celebrating successes while also remaining light-hearted.

As we’ve settled into more of a routine there are fewer day-to-day updates.

How have you evolved as a leader?

RA: Because I was writing and sending that daily email, I ended up communicating with employees from all levels of the organization. I enjoyed sharing more of myself and the machinations of management and decision-making and got to see the appreciation that people have for what we accomplished.

By doing that, I had to become more confident in how to make and communicate decisions that not everyone is going to fully agree with. You might make a decision convinced it’s the most rational and justifiable for the organization and its members, but at the same time, it will impact employees in different ways. You need to know that and communicate why it’s still the right decision.

Share what’s going on. Be honest, be human, be vulnerable, show appreciation, and provide feedback.

Rick Anderson, COO, Sandia Laboratory FCU

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

RA: I am surprised by how gracious and appreciative employees and members are. We’ve received a large number of emails expressing their appreciation for the accommodations we’ve made, especially with our Paycheck Protection Program efforts.

As credit union leaders, it can hurt under normal circumstances when someone is critical. But in these times, we’re reminded the majority of folks we support and who work for us are willing to help however they can.

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

RA: Our annual employee survey fell during the pandemic period. The largest feedback item was people’s appreciation for remote work and their enthusiasm for it to continue. A key enabler of remote work is paperless workflow, which we’re leveraging now more than ever. That might have been a reason against remote work in the past, but now that we have digital capability, we’ve seen people we didn’t expect become the champions of that process. Now that we’re all forced to work in a certain way, we can see what the benefits are.

What will the future hold for your credit union?

RA: Credit unions will benefit from growing the part of the business that isn’t easily commoditized or doesn’t scale well for mass distribution that’s relationships. What will differentiate Sandia Labs will be our success in building relationships as much as our technology.

We are not going to out-tech Google, Amazon, or Apple, and we don’t have the scale of Wells Fargo or Bank of America. But the one thing we can do that they don’t is build a personal relationship. We need certain technology and products to build better relationships, yes, but those relationships will be what we leverage to better our future.

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

RA: We can accomplish big things in this organization with the good will of our employees. We have a good foundation of trust and a collegial culture, but you can’t fully see the benefits of working with the people you trust and enjoy until there is a high-stakes problem, emotions are running high, and we’re all working together. That’s when we start to realize we can do just about anything.

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

RA: Share what’s going on. Be honest, be human, be vulnerable, show appreciation, and provide feedback. My biggest takeaway is just how much of leadership is being the one who initiates communication. When I started writing my daily update emails, I didn’t think a whole lot about it. I thought it would be a great way to keep people apprised of what’s going on. But it was amazing the number of people who said, Thank you for your leadership. All I did was initiate communication. I didn’t think of that as a leadership task, but people certainly thought of it that way.

Even if you don’t have all the answers, don’t be afraid to be the one who gets the ball rolling.

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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