On the Lookout

businessmen flying on paper airplanes with telescopes
Contributing Writer

12 minutes

CEOs give advice for spotting and developing talent.

Every organization wants to hire the best people, but finding those people can sometimes be a challenge.

While you need excellent recruiting efforts, networking skills and professional development strategies, cultivating good people starts at the very top of an organization with the CEO’s active involvement.

“Identifying talent ideally should be more than something that simply resides in your job description; it must be an important part of who you are as a leader,” reports CUES member Tony C. Budet, president/CEO of $1.8 billion University Federal Credit Union in Austin, Texas. “As a CEO, you must make the time, and consider seeking out and developing new talent a critical value-added role.”

Budet, the 2014 CUES Outstanding Chief Executive, learned the importance of identifying and developing young talent from former University FCU CEO Burton Eubanks. Now Budet is paying it forward.

“I’m personally mentoring people who in some cases are three or four levels below me in the organization chart,” Budet reports. “I use a liberal delegation model that provides me with the time I need. I don’t think it diminishes what my HR and organizational development colleagues do. Developing people is critical to sustaining a high-growth organization, and it’s important for me as the CEO to play a role.”

Identifying Talent

A prerequisite for attracting top talent is positioning your organization as a desirable place to work. “I think it starts with having a great reputation in the industry,” says CUES member Teresa Freeborn, president/CEO of $932 million Xceed Financial Credit Union, headquartered in El Segundo, Calif. “The best people want to work for the best organizations, and those are the people we want working with us.”

Selected in 2014 as one of the Best Credit Unions to Work For by Credit Union Journal, Xceed Financial CU has established a reputation that attracts superior talent. However, Freeborn observes, “The biggest challenge isn’t finding people; it’s finding the right fit for our corporate culture.”

To accomplish that, Xceed Financial CU relies on organization-wide networking, facilitated by the fact that key personnel serve on a variety of volunteer boards and committees for industry organizations. This includes Freeborn herself, who recently completed her term as CUES chair and still serves on the CUES Board. Networking also occurs during industry events.

“We’re ‘all in’ when it comes to collaboration and relationship-building,” says Freeborn. “When we’re out there networking, we want to be on the lookout for those who share our values and priorities. We even have an associate referral program that provides a monetary reward. We like it when our associates make referrals. It says that they are happy with the organization to the point that they’re bringing in people, and having someone’s endorsement bodes well for the new person’s success.”

What are some of the key personality traits organizations should be seeking in employees? Former CUES President/CEO Chuck Fagan—now president/CEO of CUES Supplier member PSCU, St. Petersburg, Fla.—stresses the importance of looking for individuals who take a broad view.

“Make sure that everyone in your organization has a clear idea of what you’re trying to do,” Fagan says. “That goes beyond looking at the mission statement to having employees who understand the big picture. When I was at CUES, we were looking for a bit of entrepreneurial spirit in anyone we hired. We wanted employees who are self-starters, but who also have an organizational focus rather than a ‘me’ focus. We wanted employees who realized that, “If the organization does well, then it follows that I also will do well.’”

In addition, Fagan suggests seeking out employees who exhibit an eagerness to learn. This is one of the key attributes of the Young Professionals Group, a subset of CUES’ employees who are 35 years of age or younger. Approximately a third of the CUES staff belong to the group, which meets regularly to explore various management topics.

“They invited me to speak twice,” Fagan reports. “As I look at this group, I’m impressed that they have the confidence to ask questions rather than just sit around and wait for instructions. I love it when younger workers are courageous enough to challenge their organization’s leadership—obviously when done in the right way by asking, ‘Hey, Chuck, have you ever thought about doing things this way?’”

Among the characteristics Xceed Financial CU values in employees is a passion for service. In addition, Xceed Financial CU is looking for employees with just a little bit extra. “Let’s assume they have all the talents and credentials necessary to do the job,” Freeborn says. “What we’re looking for beyond that is added ‘sparkle’—that enthusiasm and excitement that says, ‘I’m really jazzed to be a part of this team.’”

Changing Expectations

Budet observes that organizations are giving heightened attention to employees’ future potential even as they hire for immediate needs. Future potential relates to such skills as agility and adaptability—in other words, the ability to help the organization change with the marketplace and address unforeseen challenges.

However, that doesn’t change basic requirements. “Certainly they need to be competent,” Budet says. “That’s a given. But they must also display integrity and strong ethics and be relationally gifted. Additionally, senior leadership roles demand knowledge and mastery of a variety of emotional intelligence issues.”

Eric Dillon, CEO of $5 billion Conexus Credit Union, based in Regina, Saskatchewan, underscores the idea of a shifting hiring model.

“The world is changing, and our industry has become more complex,” Dillon says. “What we’re looking for now is different from even five or 10 years ago. The best leaders of today are more adaptable and take a more collaborative approach, which is why we’re looking for employees with more diverse background and experience.”

For many CUs, the best place to look for future leaders is within the organization itself. “At the end of the day, we’re always looking for the best person to fill each role,” Freeborn says. “Our current associates are often the best candidates, so we often recruit from within before looking outside.”

Internal promotions can put an employee on a steady but sure career trajectory. As an example, Freeborn points to CUES member Paris Chevalier, who started with Xceed Financial CU as marketing manager, advanced to VP/marketing and communications, and now is chief marketing officer.

“Our people know that if they have the ability and desire to assume greater responsibility, the opportunities are here,” Freeborn reports. “We have a comprehensive plan at the top level and a strong focus on building leaders at all levels of the organization.”

Developing Talent

Credit unions that hire strong talent must have supportive programs and strategies in place to further develop that talent. At University FCU, leaders are encouraged to partner with high-potential employees with respect to their professional development.

“They sit down with their managers to develop an IDP—an individual development plan,” Budet explains. “They together identify goals and review the plan regularly. It’s putting them on notice that we’re committed to actively partnering with them to make their career aspirations happen.”

University FCU supports professional development with a series of classes designed to strengthen employees’ self-mastery, interpersonal, enterprise-wide and community engagement skills, while covering a broad range of topics such as career management, life mapping and managing conflict. Employees also have the opportunity to participate in programs that enhance their sales and service skills and can partake of such activities as job shadowing, meeting presentations and mock interviews to hone their management skills.

Beyond those formal development programs, Budet makes it a point to actively participate in key employees’ development. He regularly has lunch or breakfast with members of his senior team, talking with them one on one so he can get to know them better as employees and as people. He makes it a point to meet with all new staff members to communicate the credit union’s vision, mission and values; he also challenges them to assess whether there is congruence between their individual values and those of the cooperative.

“When I have lunch with new leaders, I spend about 30 minutes listening to their life stories,” Budet reports. “In turn, I reiterate key organizational values and invite them to actively buy into them, to join us. We have a strong passion for serving people and for relationally driven business.”

Budet stays connected with his senior team through a regular Monday morning meeting. “I’ll admit that I mostly do this for selfish reasons. We have an informal agenda, but the main purpose of these meetings is to give me the opportunity to look everyone in the face. This may be the only time that I’m able to see everyone during the course of a busy week, and I want to be able to informally assess where they are and to be helpful, if possible.”

At Xceed Financial CU, career development starts with managers listening to employees’ goals to develop a roadmap that serves as a basis for future growth.

“The majority of our internal promotions have stemmed from that initial conversation with the associate, with the leader giving specific goals to the associate and the associate showing the fortitude to step up to that next role,” Freeborn reports.

Additional education for employees is encouraged at Xceed Financial CU with generous tuition reimbursement, as well as customized learning programs tailored to the individual. For senior level positions, Freeborn provides direct mentoring and ensures that those with C-level potential have development opportunities in committee and board meetings.

As a member of the CUES Board, Freeborn has a front-row seat to professional development opportunities offered to current and future leaders. Some of Xceed Financial CU’s executives have attended CUES’ CEO Institute, and Freeborn herself is looking forward to her second year in CUES’ Strategic Innovation Institute. It’s in keeping with her view that learning never ends.

“You never know what you’ll learn today that is going to help you tomorrow,” she says.

Freeborn concedes that those who undertake professional development may eventually take a position elsewhere, but sees this as part of preparing a new generation of leaders. An example is Kathryn Davis, CME, CCE, Xceed Financial CU’s former chief marketing officer, who leveraged the skills from attending CEO Institute to become CEO at another organization.

“She went on to pursue her dream, but we had huge value from her while she was with us,” Freeborn reports.

CUES, which provides professional development for CU leaders, develops mid-level managers in part by giving them opportunities to participate in company-wide initiatives. In that capacity, they are able to interact with CUES board members and top-level individuals within the organization.

Fagan concedes that CUs may invest time and money in employee development, only to see these employees go elsewhere.

It’s important to build a culture that person won’t want to leave, Fagan says. “When you bring a person on board, focus on providing them with opportunities for growth and advancement that they’re not going to get elsewhere. Retaining good employees is not all about pay. It’s about how you involve your employees in the organization so that they’ll want to stay.”

A strategy for retaining top talent is to offer a valuable benefit, such as tuition reimbursement, with the provision that the employee will commit to staying with the CU for a specified period of time. This is an agreement Conexus CU makes with key employees, ensuring the investment in the employee’s education will benefit the credit union directly, at least for a time.

Dillon concedes that the investment in learning is substantial, but the returns are even greater. “If you’ve got a great CFO who can drive around $40 million in business to your organization, then the impact of $50,000 invested in that person’s career development is a small price to pay.”

One of the largest CUs in Canada, Conexus CU has achieved its status largely through a stellar staff and a solid reputation for leadership development.

“We have clear expectations with our senior managers regarding leadership development,” Dillon says. “They need to know intimately two levels of their own organization chart and have a strong gauge on potential. We give employees many opportunities to showcase their talents.”

To develop employees who may be on track for a C-level position, Conexus CU uses a proven formula: 20 percent self-assessment work, in which employees use tools to assess their backgrounds; 10 percent classroom learning, in which employees take university courses to further their knowledge; and 70 percent applied learning, which provides development through working on projects.

Among the 1,000 employees at Conexus CU, eight are on the leadership team and approximately 30 to 40 have been identified as having C-level potential.

“Their development is no longer owned by their supervisor. It is owned by the organization,” Dillon explains. “A person at the VP level could be the next CFO and, at any given time, might have six people on the leadership team actively mentoring him in such areas as operations and marketing. They also do a mentoring stint with me.”

Additionally, the leadership team helps these individuals assess the most appropriate career path for their talents and skills. “We talk about what’s on the roadmap,” Dillon says. “For instance, if a young employee wants to be COO some day, he or she may not know what that person’s job responsibilities are. We develop our employees around the capabilities that are required for a position, not around a title.”

For top positions, Conexus CU devotes considerable time to coaching and mentoring to bring forth the full potential of employees. This investment in building top-notch employees comes back to the credit union many times over. As Dillon notes, “We have a value proposition built around service and member intimacy. If you’re going to build the best member experience, you have to have the best people.”

Diane Franklin is a freelance writer based in Missouri.

CUES Learning Portal