Support For Women Leaders In The Badger State

A one-day live summit and periodic virtual sessions are empowering women and ensuring their future in the movement.

Top-Level Takeaways

  • March 2023 marks the 5th year of the Wisconsin Credit Union League’s Women’s Leadership Summit.
  • The league offers an in-person event as well as virtual sessions through the year to support women leaders.

According to the NCUA’s latest Diversity Self-Assessment Results, women hold slightly more than 51% of the CEO roles at reporting credit unions. That number falls to just 16.9% for self-reporting credit unions with more than $1 billion in assets.

In Wisconsin, women hold the top spot at two of the largest credit unions in the state, Summit Credit Union ($5.4B, Cottage Grove, WI) and Community First Credit Union ($5.2B, Neenah, WI).

“We’re fortunate to have the support of those CEOs and others,” says Jennifer Esser, vice president of professional development at the Wisconsin Credit Union League.

Five years ago, the league identified a need to create content, offer support, and provide enrichment opportunities for women leaders of any sized credit union. So, it created the Annual Women’s Leadership Summit.

Jennifer Esser, VP of Professional Development, Wisconsin Credit Union League

Initially launched as an in-person event each March, the pandemic brought the need for a virtual series to the forefront. Now, women leaders in Wisconsin have virtual opportunities to connect throughout the year in addition to the annual summit, which the league relaunched as an in-person event last year.

“Our role is to act as a catalyst for our women leaders,” Esser says. “We bring them together to talk about what’s keeping them up at night and identify how we can better support them and provide resources for their success.”

The Wisconsin League also plans to add a session focused on women’s leadership during its annual convention for women and their allies. According to Esser, the league has heard from several men interested in learning how to better support women leaders within their own organizations and the industry.

Online And In-Person

Virtual sessions, which last approximately two hours and occur several times per year, have created opportunities to present out-of-the-box topics. For example, the virtual session in October 2022 covered mindfulness learning and breathing techniques. More traditionally, these sessions have allowed CEOs from around the state to share their own leadership stories, including how they joined the credit union movement and their inspiration for staying in the industry.

The Annual Women’s Leadership Summit itself — which is taking place this year on March 16 — is a full- day workshop with guest speakers and the opportunity to network with industry leaders as well as women leaders from outside the credit union movement.

“The first portion really starts with the you,” Esser says. “We explore topics like how women can continue to be leaders while also putting themselves first.”

This year’s program kicks off with a discussion about authenticity and how attendees can use their gifts, talents, and strengths as a catalyst for impact. The summit also includes a presentation from the Global Women’s Leadership Network, a session on how to lead others rather than simply please others, and a roundtable discussion that will cover career path, struggles, and successes as well as offer attendees the chance to ask their own questions.

“A lot of CEOs in our state want to be involved,” Esser says. “We’re collaborating with them to explore what kind of topics we should address.”

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Successes And Future Plans

One of the key benefits of both the in-person summit and the virtual series is that they have created a space for women to have honest conversations. According to Esser, this kind of “real talk” encourages participants to share and explore their challenges in a safe, supportive space.

The events also give established women leaders a platform to tell their stories and share tips and advice that is invaluable for others.

“There is a real need to build our future leaders,” Esser says. “Helping credit unions with succession planning is something we’re focused on. We have quite a few young female professionals younger than 40 in our state, and their personal stories are motivating.”

Thanks to popular demand, the league now offers an optional happy hour the night before the summit. This casual reception provides more time for women to connect on a personal level before the more structured sessions begin.

The league is also working to create a Wisconsin sister society in partnership with the World Council of Credit Unions’ Global Women’s Leadership Network. It’s also discussing partnerships with the Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa leagues.

“On the education and training side, we have a strong network and work together very closely with other leagues,” Esser says. Some of these leagues also have their own events to support women leaders. Another entity worth noting is the Credit Union Women’s Leadership Alliance, according to Esser.

Pro Tips For A Leadership Summit

“Our role as a league is all about getting people together, creating space for important conversations, and acting as a catalyst for our member credit unions,” Esser says.

The more the league talks to its credit union members, the more it knows exactly what they want, she adds.

“Our Women’s Leadership Summit is a result of women CEOs wanting to create this type of programming,” Esser says. “It has grown because of their support.”

Esser’s advice is applicable to credit union events as well as league offerings. Listening, involving members from the start, and asking for a commitment are solid steps to create excitement around and ensure the success of all kinds of programming.

“Try different things and ask the right questions,” Esser says. “Does this sound like something you’d benefit from? Can we count on you to participate?”

March 6, 2023

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