Q&A: Leadership in Action

Lois Kttsch
By Lois Kitsch

5 minutes

Lois Kitsch
Co-founder, CU Difference
Recently retired national program director of the National Credit Union Foundation’s Development Education program

What leadership techniques did you apply to leading the Development Education program?

I believe the most effective leadership happens from behind the scenes. To do this effectively, the facilitator must create a learning environment where everything revolves around the learner. Development Education is a six-day immersion program into all things credit union.  This program is so popular because every moment of content is focused on the learner and not  a teacher providing content. I use this same technique for most training programs I do, including in a global context. I recently spent a month in Kenya and Ethiopia. and these same strategies worked as well with those learners as with those here in the states.

How do you define leadership? What can credit unions do to develop leaders for the future?

There are so many forms of leadership. We often think the leader is the person with the biggest title, most education or the most seniority. This is not always the case. A great leader has many qualities that are not taught in school. Empathy, experience and facing life with openness are often underrated values in credit unions. Skills can be taught, and a willing attitude is invaluable. The leadership lesson here is: Give unexpected leaders the chance to lead. Training opportunities should be available to everyone—not just the senior executives.

Did the foundation or DE program ever face a challenge or crisis that took leadership to overcome? If so, what was the crisis? What was done? What was your role?

About 10 years ago, the Development Education program was indeed in crisis. During the recession, credit unions were less focused on training and a focus on mission was not a priority. The program had a become a major expense to the Foundation, and there was conversation about whether the program had outlived its purpose. The Foundation formed the CUDE Advisory Council, which was instrumental in revitalizing the program. I also recognized that the content delivery was dated and needed a dramatic overhaul. Over the next five years, we completely changed the content delivery to be far more experiential in nature. Participants brought rave reviews back to their credit unions, which began to see the value of living the mission.


“If you are not preparing others to lead, you will be stuck in the same role, never growing yourself. What kind of legacy is that?”

Lois Kitsch

How will you apply your leadership in your new role as a consultant?

I plan to continue to support the Foundation in any way that I can and to continue to use experiential learning as the cornerstone in all of the consulting work that I do. I am excited about opportunities that are opening up to expand my own skills and take me in new directions. I will be doing far more international work in places that are not used to learning from a woman. This has brought fun and interesting challenges to my leadership style. For me, starting with the basics is a good strategy. Know the outcomes you expect the learners to accomplish and then set clear objectives and action plans to accomplish these desired outcomes. Finally, know your learner and adjust the content accordingly. It is not about how much you know, but how much they can learn from the others around them.

What advice would you give to current and aspiring female leaders at credit unions today?

A woman in leadership today needs to really find ways to balance her life. The primary responsibilities of the care and feeding of children and running a happy home still fall to women. First and foremost, ask for help at home, especially for the more mundane tasks that need to happen. This allows time for family relationships and not the laundry.  

Find your voice. This means being assertive in the workplace but not aggressive. I think the whole idea of “think like a woman and act like a man” is ridiculous. The very reason women can be such powerful leaders is because of our empathy and nurturing styles. Men are far better at networking, though, so hone this skill. Look for a mentor or sponsor who can help grow your career. Don’t expect special treatment because you are a woman—just earn your leadership role through hard work, taking calculated risks, admitting when you’ve made a mistake and giving others credit for the work they do. Earn the respect of those around you, most importantly those you supervise. This is a hard one for all of us: Stay away from the office gossip. If you have something to say about someone, be willing to say it to their face.   

Leaders are willing to step in and do things not on their job descriptions when needed.  Remember, however, that at review time your goals need to be met, so manage your time well.  Finally, work for an organization that you love and respect. If you question the motives or expected outcomes of your organization, you may be in the wrong job.

What else helped make you the industry leader you are today?

Hard work and taking huge chances have given me opportunities far beyond what I thought I could achieve as a young professional. When the World Council of Credit Unions called me to lead a project in the Philippines, I moved 10,000 miles away to a place I had never been. I left with nine suitcases and a plan of what I hoped to accomplish. I went alone and, admittedly, was scared at first. The best lessons in my life were learned under a tree with a woman’s group in the Philippines. I learned to listen better and to understand that life is not always about me.  Leave “my” out of your vocabulary and insert “our”—for example, the phrase “my team” has always caused me angst. “Our team” is a more inclusive term and clearly demonstrates that every role is important. I learned to trust others to lead and to provide those around me with as many opportunities as I could garner for them. For if you are not preparing others to lead, you will be stuck in the same role, never growing yourself. What kind of legacy is that? Finally, I’ve learned that you must know what you need to watch carefully but try not to be controlling.


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