By Ray Birch
BURLINGAME, Calif.—The career path to the top of the credit union that begins at the teller line is fading, says one CU CEO who began that same journey 34 years ago.
Linda White, CEO at Upward CU here, told CUToday.info that advancing from the front line, which a number of credit union leaders have accomplished, is a limited opportunity today due to mergers and the growing complexity of CUs.
“It used to be a way to the top for many,” said White, who has led Upward for the last 20 years. “And I say ‘used to’ because fewer small credit unions exist today. Unless you have a lot of energy, and I do, it’s hard to run a small credit union. Our credit union is $78 million and you have to be willing to do anything and everything and get your hands dirty. Small credit unions that are successful are being run by people who are not afraid to get their hands dirty and face all the obstacles that come to them.”
Upward CU has grown assets by more than $14 million over the last five years, and in 2018 made more than $1 million in net income. ROA was 1.36% last year, and capital stands at 10.03%.
With Women’s History Month being celebrated during March, White spoke with CUToday.info as part of a series on female leaders within the credit union movement.
The #MeToo Movement
White, as did many others who spoke with CUToday.info in this series, believes the #MeToo Movement and just a greater focus on women’s issues in the past five years have done much to drive greater gender equality in the workplace.
“What has happened in last five years has made women talk a lot about, ‘Look where we came from,’” explained White. “Now, the pendulum can’t swing too far the other way. We don’t want male-bashing. We should not be looking down on someone simply because they are a man. We don’t have to burn our bras anymore...I think younger women in their 20s and 30s are seeing what they can do. And they are identifying more and more the things those who came before them have done to pave the way.”
Within credit unions, White gives a great deal of credit to the efforts of the Global Women’s Leadership Network and its chapters, or “sister societies.”
“The GWLN has absolutely affected a great deal of change,” said White. “It really helps to know that you are not alone. And I learned this from Susan (Mitchell), who leads the GWLN, that it’s time to give back. Because whatever struggles I did or did not go through when I was younger there is someone else who does not have the voice.”
What has helped White grow as a leader over the years, she said, is having a strong group of people around her.
“I surround myself with supportive people,” she said. “I have been blessed to have supportive people—both male and female—in my career path.”
What’s Being Overlooked
White believes one outgrowth of the women’s movement is being overlooked.
“I think women are being kinder to each other now,” she suggested, referring to the workplace. “Women can be really mean to each other. They can sometimes think, ‘Who does she think she is?’ I just have really noticed that women are kinder to each other today. While I don’t think I am catty or hateful in any way, I have come to respect other women more, seeing value in all others’ opinions and in what they are saying.”
Nevertheless, White also believes there continues to be a lack of respect for women’s opinions when compared to those of men.
“We just lost a board member who happened to be female, and she was very misunderstood,” said White. “I remember sitting in a meeting listening to what she was saying, and yes, there might have been some white noise coming from her passion, but there was always a valuable message in what she said.”
White said that her own style, whether just in conversation or in leading her credit union, is to be straightforward and direct.
“I don’t like to sweep anything under the rug,” she said. “If we cannot be open and candid with our communication and don’t have the right team players we won’t succeed. I won’t sweep anything under the rug—I don’t have time for that. You always know where you stand with me.”
White believes the spotlight placed on women in recent years will only help other women advance to greater leadership positions, particularly within credit unions.
“There are a lot of opportunities opening up for females in credit unions,” she said. “A lot of CEOs are retiring, so positions will be open. When I look at what we have been able to do within the GWLN and sister societies, to help mid-level female managers within organizations aspire to greater things, I see a great deal of positive change happening. Going forward, as many of these CEO roles open up, I think it’s going to be a level playing field—the right person for the job, not a consideration of whether the candidate is a man or a woman.”