The Rise Of The Chief Of Staff

Leadership support at the executive level is popping up on org charts and growing in popularity among large organizations, even credit unions. TDECU’s new chief of staff shares her experiences, career path, and advice for doing the job.
Brandy Phillips, Chief of Staff, TDECU

It’s a busy time for the senior leadership team at TDECU ($4.7B, Lake Jackson, TX). Planning for 2023 is underway. The organization is juggling initiatives surrounding employee engagement, member experience, and innovation. And then there’s an expanded partnership with the University of Houston.

For Brandy Phillips, the credit union’s chief of staff, free time is hard to come by. Phillips has stand-up meetings with the senior leadership team, two-hour executive roundtables, touch-base meetings with the CEO, and a host of status calls on various projects throughout the week.

“I have 30-minute windows here and there,” says Phillips, who spent the past 11 years on the TDECU management team, most recently as vice president of mortgage, before taking over as chief of staff earlier this year.

Aligning Goals, Objectives, And Purpose

The role of chief of staff is still fairly uncommon at credit unions and is more likely to appear at shops with more than $1 billion in assets. The job charts its heritage back to the military and later government organizations. It’s little surprise, then, that TDECU CEO Isaac Johnson, a commanding general in the U.S. Army Reserve, saw the need for the role in 2021 after being promoted to CEO.

Johnson — who leads more than 12,000 soldiers and civilians in the reserve’s global Civil Affairs Operations, Psychological Operations, and Information Operations — experienced the value of the role firsthand for managing military operations across multiple regions of the world.

When he was traveling for TDECU, Johnson says he would have to make up to six calls when checking in on what was happening at the credit union. The new role solved that problem. More importantly, says Johnson, the chief of staff solves problems behind the scenes.

“Our chief of staff is constantly interacting with other senior leaders,” Johnson says. “The role is actually influencing, not directing, them, to ensure they’re aligned to our goals, objectives, and purpose.”

In “The Case for a Chief of Staff,Harvard Business Review author and former CEO Dan Ciampa notes there are approximately 68,000 people in chief of staff positions in the private sector, most at large corporations. Unlike the CEO’s executive assistant, the chief of staff doesn’t handle routine correspondence or manage the leader’s day-to-day schedule. Instead, the role is a full member of the senior leadership team, according to Ciampa.

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“This system ensures that leaders make the most of their limited time, that information arrives at the right point in their decision-making process, and that follow-up happens without their having to check,” Ciampa says. “Many new CEOs default to the system they’ve inherited, even if it is poorly suited to their style or to the operational changes they must make. Often, there’s a better way to handle the information flow necessary for a CEO to succeed — and very often a chief of staff can play an essential role.”

The Eyes And Ears Of The Organization

According to Phillips’ bio, she is responsible for fostering organizational effectiveness and works in close collaboration with the senior leadership team and board of directors to manage the execution and implementation of TDECU’s corporate strategy and initiatives.

Phillips also sees her role as a bridge across various parts of the organization, which has more than 900 employees serving more than 377,000 members. She attends meetings for different departments and teams and monitors the progress of projects, stepping in when necessary. Generally, she regards herself as “the eyes and ears of the organization” and serves as a trusted partner and advisor for the CEO, the leadership team, and other leaders.

“I collaborate across the organization and look for opportunities to improve our processes, how we execute, and how we can be more effective,” Phillips says. “I facilitate some of our team meetings and play devil’s advocate, challenging our thinking sometimes.”

Phillips had 12 years at TDECU, most recently as vice president of mortgage, prior to assuming the chief of staff role four months ago. During her tenure with the mortgage team, she helped reach $2.4 billion in home loans — achieving 30% year-over-year production growth for two years in a row.

“The mortgage business is fast-paced and complex and always changing,” Phillips says. “It’s very much like this role. That definitely helped prepare me.”

Phillips began her career in financial services more than 20 years ago in operations and mortgage underwriting at Bank of America, moved to Cornerstone Mortgage in 2010, and landed at TDECU in 2011. Three years later, while holding down a full-time job, she enrolled in the University of Houston-Clear Lake, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in marketing and management and then a master’s degree in business administration with a concentration in leadership. A co-chair of the credit union’s DE&I Council, she also holds a Diversity and Inclusion Certificate from e-Cornell University.

“Working, going to school, and having a family, you learn to juggle and prioritize pretty quickly,” says Phillips, a mother of a teenage daughter, a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach, and supporter of the MBA Open Doors Foundation, Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Setting The Executive Agenda

Phillips sets the agenda for executive roundtable meetings, which take place every other Thursday. During these meetings, the senior leadership teams hears updates from risk, ALCO, and other initiatives including employee engagement and member experience. Phillips and Johnson meet as needed throughout the week to share and relay information.

Recognizing that she can’t be everywhere at once, Phillips says she relies on her partners throughout the leadership team to let her know when to step in.

“Being able to judge some of it is trial and error; it’s definitely a learning process and something we continue to tweak and evolve,” she says. “It’s very much a partnership because something I don’t need to be involved with today, I might need to be involved with tomorrow.”

Phillips is also the key sponsor of a monthly team leaders meeting that approximately 60 directors and vice presidents from across the organization attend. The group has organized itself into 12 teams that share information and perspectives on a variety of business topics.

“It’s been a way to bring the directors and VPs into the conversation, both from a development opportunity and for them to learn and show how they can partner cross-functionally,” the chief of staff says. “We’re building in that team-of-teams thought process.”

For Phillips, the team-of-teams concept is an important way to breakdown silos. One critical area, she says, is member experience, where it’s more important to ensure accountability across the organization — from how everyone talks about member experience to how they execute on it.

“I look for a situation where there’s a silo or siloed thinking and challenge us to pull together and think more cross-functionally, wear our enterprise hats, and pull together as a team versus hoarding,” she says.

Leading Through Times Of Change

Like nearly every other business in today’s high-demand job market, TDECU has seen its share of management departures that reshuffled the top-level org chart. Both of CEO Johnson’s executive vice presidents left the credit union in 2022 for new opportunities.

Jason Osterhage spent a year at TDECU as executive vice president and chief operations officer before taking the job of president and CEO of Teachers Credit Union ($4.6B, South Bend, IN). Rhonda Pavlicek, executive vice president and chief financial officer, left after 21 years. She now works as a teacher, coach, and mentor at the Consumer Bankers Association Executive Banking School.

With two open EVP positions, Johnson tapped the chief of staff at that time, Jason Schneider, to take over the CFO job as a senior vice president. Schneider had served as the chief of staff role for the past year and helped Phillips with her transition.

“That partnership was incredibly valuable as I stepped into this,” Phillips says, adding that she sees it as a role that evolves according to the needs of the organization.

Because of that evolution, the chief of staff says it’s difficult to write a job description for the role and not the person.

“It needs to be broad so it can fit anybody and change with the needs of the organization,” Phillips says.

Initially, Phillips expected the 10 members of the senior leadership team to advocate for their own lines of business, making it a challenge to push through decisions. But, she says everyone is good at collaboration and “wearing the enterprise hat.”

Phillips gives the senior team the space to share what they think, pushes for a decision, and then operationalizes it.

“It’s letting them stay in that strategic space,” the chief of staff says. “Then working through my channels to execute and operationalize with the larger organization.”

In a relatively short span, Phillips settled into the new job and has been fielding calls from other credit unions interested in learning more about the chief of staff roles and responsibilities. She expects the number of chief of staffs will continue to grow. 

“I’m having a ton of fun, I really enjoy it,” she says. “I always loved mortgage, but now being at the enterprise level and getting to interact and contribute in that space has been a lot of fun. I love to learn, so I’m looking forward to continuing to learn and grow and contribute.”

 

November 9, 2022

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