Before becoming CEO of University Federal Credit Union ($2.3B, Austin, TX) in 2000, Tony Budet was a typical CFO who focused on spreadsheets and ratios. But five years before taking the helm of the Texas cooperative, his mentor made it clear that UFCU was not in the numbers business. It was in the people business.
Here, Budet shares how he shifted his focus from crunching numbers to building relationships, how he developed emotional intelligence, and why organizational mission matters.
On His Start In Credit Unions
I got my start at Public Employees Credit Union in Austin. I started there shortly out of college and worked my way up to controller. At a meeting, I ran into Burton Eubanks, who was then CEO of University FCU, and we hit it off immediately. I knew if a job ever opened at UFCU, I would take it just to hang out with him. A few months later, he offered me the position of chief financial officer/vice president of finance. Saying yes to that opportunity was the best professional decision I ever made.
When Mr. Eubanks spoke with me about the possibility of succeeding him after his retirement, he told me quite frankly that I needed to improve some things. I stunk at relationships, but he was willing to coach me. This is not a numbers business, he told me. It’s a people business.
On Good Versus Great Leaders
What separates a great leader from a good one is realizing you need to focus on the human side of the business. In The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business, author Patrick Lencioni makes the case that most organizations focus on the things leaders can measure objectively marketing, lending, finance, etc. He labels those the sciences of the business. Every business has them, and most leaders focus there because that’s where they are comfortable.
However, Lencioni also makes the case that competitive differentiation lies not in those sciences but in an area that sometimes gets ignored organizational health, or the people side of the business.
The health of an organization includes more subjective areas such as creating an environment with minimal politics and confusion and high levels of morale and staff engagement. The best leaders focus here to create a healthy organization that attracts top talent, which in turn helps them develop their competitive advantage and differentiate their organizations within the marketplace.
On Leadership Style
It sounds kind of trite to use the term servant leader, but that is what I strive to be.
My predecessor was the epitome of a servant leader. When I was CFO, I had to explain a $25,000 write-off. I detailed what happened and said I understood if I no longer had a job. Mr. Eubanks smiled and said, Of course you have a job! I just spent $25,000 training you, and that problem isn’t ever going to happen again, right?
It’s one thing to imagine being extended that kind of grace, but another to be on the receiving end of it. That is the standard I aim for, and it all starts with reminding everyone that we are a financial cooperative not a bank. It’s important for everyone to understand they are working for a mission-driven organization.
Leadership style impacts an organization’s mission. We’re a credit union focused on higher education, headquartered in Austin. We mean it when we quote the city’s slogan, Keep Austin Weird. Our directors are always looking for ways to hone our competitive advantage as a cooperative and live up to the standards of our founders.
A sub-group of our directors developed new vision and mission statements eight years ago, and it was up to our executive team to bring those to life. Our mission is to provide for the well-being of our members. We have an intense outward focus on the higher education community and use our resources, shared values, and high-impact relationships to help them do what they do better.
The 13 universities and colleges we serve are in the talent creation business. That talent fuels business when injected into the communities we serve. It’s a cycle we invest in the higher education community, and on the back-end, we get what we need to ensure we have a strong bottom line and can continue serving our community.
On Hiring Talent
I let others deal with the competency questions during interviews. My colleagues usually have a better feel for that. I focus on integrity, ethics, character, relational skills, and emotional intelligence. Nearly everything we do here is in a team setting, so we need people who can work together.
I’m interested in a person’s self-awareness, self-control, social aptitude, and understanding of their life’s purpose. A job is one part of their life and shouldn’t be the sole purpose for their existence. We can find many competent people in a city like Austin; these other factors are sometimes difficult to find, yet in large part, determine whether they are a cultural fit.
On Emotional Intelligence
I say I’m a reformed CFO. I had to work on developing my own emotional intelligence to become an effective CEO.
In addition to having Mr. Eubanks mentor me, I underwent an intensive six-month coaching program that included a 360-degree evaluation unlike any I’d had prior, one that clearly identified which of my colleagues had said what about me. My wife was even involved.
It was enlightening and difficult at times. It helped me realize people see through the facades we put up in both our professional and personal lives. In the end, the knowledge that my colleagues were sticking with me despite my faults was liberating.
As a leader, understanding that you don’t need to be perfect allows you to put your ego aside and focus on the bigger picture. You can’t change your DNA, but you can learn to recognize your natural tendencies and redirect yourself in more productive ways. You can improve the quality of your thinking.
On Finding Inspiration
I begin every day with meditation or prayer. I pull up my schedule for the day and think through what my role is in each event. When I arrive at the office, I’m mentally prepared for what’s ahead of me. This prevents me from being jerked around from one meeting to the next. Hopefully, at the end of the day, I’ve been of use to someone.
I also find inspiration from geography. I’m from Puerto Rico, and my wife and I own a home there. I picture myself on the island and can easily find a wealth of inspiration.
On Measuring Success
Success is about making one-on-one connections. I love mentoring and coaching employees. As we elevate others, seeing the impact that has on them and their families is gratifying. The more people I can help, the more successful I am.
The credit union constantly sees the benefit of that cycle of support from the relationships we’ve built. I’m retiring at the end of 2022, and the board is discussing what we need for the credit union’s future success. It boils down to having someone who champions the seven international cooperative values, recognizes criticality of organizational health and relationships to our vision and mission, and is deeply connected to the community. It’s nice to have a credit union background, but those relational skills are even more critical.
On What The Industry Needs More, And Less, Of …
I’d like to see more attention given to cooperative values six and seven, collaboration among cooperatives and concern for community, respectively. We do a great job with one through five.
I’d also like to see a bit less focus on the numbers. A solid bottom line and an understanding of the financials are critical, but we often times lose sight of our higher mission. Serving members, not the numbers, should drive the organization.
This interview has been edited and condensed.