WASHINGTON–A credit union CEO who shouldn’t be alive to share what he has learned shared what he has learned about what has become a literally life-changing experience for him and his CU.
Patrick Adams, CEO of the $300-million St. Louis Community Credit Union, shared what he called “The Last Lecture: The Story You’ve Never Heard & How It Changed a Credit Union for Good.”
Adams said he was on hand at the CUNA Marketing and Business Development Council’s annual meeting with a pacemaker defibrillator in his chest–but that wasn’t the message about heart that he was really looking to share.
But first, the event that led to a whole different perspective on life. Five and a half-years ago Adams was in his customary morning workout at the YMCA where he would run several miles and lift weights.
“On this particular day something different happens. Suddenly a golden inlaid curtain closed in from my peripheral vision. And I thought this can’t be good, and what happened next is what’s least expected,” shared Adams with the CUNA Marketing and Business Development Council annual meeting here. “I had sudden cardiac arrest syndrome. It’s an attack on the heart when there is absolutely no reason to be one. I had passed every cardiac test. This is a fancy way of saying I had a massive heart attack. I lay dead on the floor.”
Adams stressed his story isn’t “maudlin,” but instead a “story of joy.”
“There aren’t many people who are alive after they die. When you get that second life, when you get that gift, what do you do with it? Don’t find out by dying,” he said. “It’s a rough road. Go in a different direction.”
Adams said he “died” in the best possible place, a YMCA that had a defibrillator that worked, and at the best possible time—an off-duty Secret Service agent was running on a nearby treadmill. Just a block away was a fire department station.
‘You Were Already Blue’
The Secret Service agent, Doug Roberts, who has since become a close friend to Adams, told him at the time he was having a very bad day and was at the gym to blow off some steam. When he glanced over his shoulder, he admitted he thought Adams was “some idiot doing sit-ups in the hallway.”
“He came over and leaned over me, and in his words, ‘Dude, you couldn’t have been more dead. You were already blue and bubbles were coming from your mouth.” Roberts would end up saving Adams’ life (and later joked to Adams, “I saved your life. Now I’m one for three.”)
Adams would spend the next 10 days in the hospital.
“You hear people say, ‘It’s good to see you.’ And people say ‘It’s good to be seen.’ You know what a special occasion is for me now? It’s every day. This is a very special occasion. Eating this morning was a special occasion. Do you all have lots of special occasions?” said Adams. “I stand here before you because of a multitude of miracles, and behind each one of those was a process, the same processes you employ every day in your organizations to try to be successful in serving your members.”
A ‘Willing Recipient’
To be able to speak to the meeting, said Adams, required an inspired leader, a strategy and effective plan, flawless execution, and a marketplace with a willing recipient. “Trust me, I was a willing recipient,” said Adams.
Adams, who said faith has always guided his life, shared his own rethinking and focus since the heart attack. “You can get up every day and curse the darkness or light a candle. I’m a light the candle every day kind of guy,” said Adams. “Every day since then I have thought what am I supposed to do with this gift I have been given. So, let me tell you—I think it’s the little stuff. I’m never going to be on Oprah and they are never going to write a book about this. It’s the little things we do every day. I don’t have any grudges. You can’t make me mad. Little things do not bother me. Why would I waste my time? Two things are contagious. Complaining and thankfulness. I choose to be thankful. What about you? What do you communicate to your team? Are you all grudged up because something ruined your day? Dude, it might be your last.”
Adams said he now often thinks of his grandchildren’s recitals and hockey practices and how he would not have seen any of that.
Not About the Product
St. Louis Community Credit Union has $300 million in assets, approximately 200 employees and 17 offices. A CDFI, the credit union’s primary FOM is low- to moderate-income consumers with an average credit score 580-600.
To serve that membership, Adams said SLCCU isn’t primarily focused on specific products. Instead, he said it’s all about its culture and its people.
“Are you an inspiring leader?” asked Adams. “How many of you are so busy you don’t know what’s going on sometimes? When I talk to an employee I listen now. I’m engaged. I’m interested.”
Adams said he has figured out that he really loves people, and credit unions are “in the people business.”
“My dad said, ‘Study business, learn people. They will be the keys to your success.’ Man, I got serious on that over the last five years,” said Adams. “And as a result, our corporate culture has gotten so much stronger. It’s the number-one reason for success. Are you making deposits in the corporate culture or are you just making withdrawals?”
A CEO’s Changed Focus
Adams said as CEO he used to worry about ROI, ROA, analytics and market analyses, and while still important, it’s not most important.
“One day you wake up and if you don’t have a good corporate culture, the numbers are suffering,” said Adams. “Are you cultivating a culture where they can excel, or are you bogged down in the numbers? How many of you have had a boss where you wish you could substitute their Chapstick with a glue stick? Put down the Twitter and pick up people.”
Leaders know what drives value is corporate culture, strategic plan, operating plan and CEO, in that order, said Adams. “Invest accordingly.”
Adams said if credit unions really want to cultivate vitality in their organizations, they need to make investments and take some risks.
“If you’re risk averse, you will underinvest. I’m worried about our institutions. We can’t underinvest. The wait and see period of our lives is over,” said Adams, adding that by nature he is not a big risk taker. “Are we pushing into new environments? Leaders have to take risks, and your culture will appreciate that. Change what you do and how you do it, but not who you are.”
The Changing Workforce
Change is another issue to which credit unions must pay attention, said Adams, and in this case it’s all about a changing workforce.
“Are you the workplace that is relevant to the emerging workforce? Do they want to work for your organization?” he asked. “Are we relevant to people looking for jobs? Those with the best people will be the most successful.”
Adams said St. Louis Community CU lives by the following words: aspire, thanks, focus, nice, passion, empathy, excellence, risk-taking, love, change, respect, admiration.
Four P’s Are Obsolete
“It used to be about product, pricing, promotion, placement. Today we need not a product, we need a solution to what people want. People don’t care about pricing, they care about value. Placement is accessibility; that’s all that matters today. And promotion? Don’t promote to me anymore. Now it’s about education.”
It’s Not About the S Word
Adams noted he often does planning sessions with credit unions and said he often asks, “What makes you different?” He asked his audience to provide the response, and the audience replied, “Service.” He agreed it’s what he hears 99% of the time.
Service--that’s what the muffler guy says, the guy who makes donuts says, the banker says. Service is important, but you have to obsess over your differentiation,” he recommended. “Do you have the right people? Are they passionate? Are they in it because it’s a vocation, or an avocation? Do you have that culture?”
A Look Toward a Richer Future
Looking to the future of both the personal lives of credit union executives and credit unions themselves, Adams urged both constituencies to make investments.
“Credit unions, we will be irrelevant long before we are insolvent. You have to invest in the right culture. What are we sitting on the money for? Only NCUA likes that we have a lot of capital. Members like it when we invest in them,” he told the meeting. “Make some investment in member experience. Take that message back. You’re loaded with capital—spend, spend, spend. The gap between us and big banks is widening because big banks are making the investment. We need to invest as well.”
As for a more personal lesson learned after having dodged the man with the black robe and scythe, Adams added, “Living long doesn’t defeat the Grim Reaper. Living well defeats the Grim Reaper. Live well. You don’t find your reward in the balance sheet, you find your reward in people who love what you do.”