Staying Put, Soaring Ahead

Margie Salazar is president and CEO of FirstLight Federal Credit Union
Contributing Writer

7 minutes

For Margie Salazar, CIE, achieving audacious career goals didn't require moving from one organization to the next.

The prevailing school of thought is that in order to make significant career strides, movement from one company to another to another, somehow striking the perfect balance between lingering too long and leaving too soon, is essential for meaningful promotions. For many, this can be an effective game plan. But for others, digging in and committing to an organization has proven the best strategy. Margie Salazar, CIE, president/CEO of $1.5 billion FirstLight Federal Credit Union, is a case in point.

Headquartered in El Paso, Texas, with 11 branches in that city and in Ft. Bliss and Las Cruses, New Mexico, FirstLight FCU serves anyone living or working in El Paso or Dona Ana County, as well as civilian and military personnel assigned to Ft. Bliss. The credit union has over 109,000 members and 340-plus employees. Salazar joined the organization in 1997, working there as a teller while still attending the University of Texas at El Paso, ultimately earning a Bachelor of Business degree in marketing and management.

“I saw a posting at the university for a job opening [at FirstLight] and I thought it would be a good job that would work with my school schedule,” Salazar recalls. “After graduating from college, I stayed working [there] as a loan officer and then later moved to different roles.”

 Different indeed. During her 25 years with FirstLight FCU, Salazar has acted as branch manager (what she describes as her “first big accomplishment”), vice president of retail, vice president of lending, executive vice president of operations, chief retail officer and then CFO, a position she held for three years before stepping into her current role this February.

Salazar has thrown her energy into the credit union industry and her community. She has served as president of the board of the El Paso Chapter of Credit Unions and as president for the Armed Services YMCA. She is a current member of the National Association of Latino Credit Union and Professionals, is chair of the board for the YMCA of El Paso and is also on the advisory council for UTEP’s Banking Academy.

Becoming CEO was a “dream come true” for Salazar.

“Twenty-five years ago, I never envisioned being the CEO of a credit union,” she says. “My goal at the time was to be the first in my family to graduate from college and get a good job. It was accomplished through a lot of hard work and grit. But I also don’t think I would be in this position today if not for the people who believed in me, encouraged me and supported me along the way. I am extremely grateful to them.”

Advancing Women wanted to learn more about how Salazar has continually moved her career forward and how other women might do the same. 

What was it about FirstLight FCU and the credit union industry in general that you found so appealing?

“It was at FirstLight that I learned about the credit union difference. I connected with the mission of ‘people helping people.’ I have a strong desire and passion to improve the lives of the people in my community, and that is what credit unions do. It was then that I decided that I wanted to have a career in the credit union industry. As a low-income-designated credit union and community development financial institution, we have a responsibility to improve the financial well-being of our community. We are more than a financial institution. “ 

How did you prepare for all the leadership positions you’ve held?

“In addition to getting my degree, I attended several leadership programs throughout my career. When I became a branch manager, I attended the NAFCU Management Development Institute, which gave me an understanding of all the different aspects of running a credit union.

“As a vice president, I benefited by working with [CUESolutions provider and Advancing Women sponsor] DDJ Myers. Through their performance DNA coaching program, we identified current strengths and additional soft skills I could work on that would help me be a better leader.

“I also attended the Cardwell 306 Leadership Institute and CUES Strategic Innovation Institute, which focused on strategy development and execution, managing change, leading teams and innovation. During the Cardwell program, I developed a close network of peers to discuss issues and share ideas with.” 

Along with investing in leadership training, what have been some of your best career decisions that other women might find helpful?

“I applied for several different positions overseeing different areas of the credit union to include retail, consumer, mortgage and business lending, collections, marketing, human resources, finance and risk management. Although some of these were not my area of expertise, I made the conscious decision to ‘jump in’ and learn as much as I could. This also gave me the opportunity to develop relationships with many individuals in the credit union by getting to know them and establishing trust.”

Can you describe some of your biggest leadership challenges?

“During my position as VP/retail, the industry was going through a change from a service culture to a sales and service culture. This was a difficult change for many people as it required a different skillset and mindset. Communicating the ‘why’ behind the need for change and benefit to the employee and member was key.

“We are going through a similar transformation today as the industry is moving towards digital service delivery and job roles are being redefined. Identifying future skillsets and providing training and development opportunities for employees will be critical in the ever-changing financial landscape we live in today.

“Work/life balance is a challenge for many, but for women in particular. When I obtained my first management position as a branch manager, the hours were long and my kids were very young. I often wrestled with aspiring to move up in my career while being there for them. Thankfully, I had a lot of support from my parents and husband. My boss was also very supportive and valued family.

“That is one of the reasons I stayed at the credit union all these years. That being said, there were still times where I was overwhelmed and stressed due to the many competing demands. It is important to seek out resources, ask for help and take time for yourself to rest and recharge.”

That does sound hard. How can credit unions and industry organizations best support women who want to advance in their careers?

“By creating opportunities for women to network and establish a mentorship program. I was fortunate to have individuals at the credit union who served as a mentor to me during different stages in my career. They shared their knowledge, gave me advice, and provided encouragement and support through good times and bad.

“I have also seen more organizations develop mentorship programs. As an example, I recently served as a mentor with the National Association of Latino Credit Unions & Professionals. The leadership institutes mentioned earlier also provide an opportunity to network and establish a relationship with others who are in similar roles.” 

Any lessons learned you want to share?

“One was knowing when someone is not a good fit and making the difficult decision to go separate ways, despite what a nice person they are. I genuinely want to see people succeed and believe that I can help them. However, I sometimes waited too long to realize that they were just not a good fit for the position, and it wasn’t going to work out. As a result, it negatively impacted the credit union and employees.”

What is your advice to women working in this industry who want to hone their leadership skills and get ahead?

“Seek out and take advantage of development opportunities. Get out of your comfort zone and learn as much as you can. Be willing to put in the hard work. Speak up and share your thoughts and ideas. Develop relationships with others who will support and encourage you. Seek out someone in your organization who you admire that could be a mentor. And join organizations that will give you an opportunity to network with others.” cues icon

Pamela Mills-Senn is a writer based in Long Beach, California.

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