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Bright young things

The Canadian Credit Union Association’s National Young Leaders Award nurture growth and inspire ambition among the system’s young, up-and-coming employees.

An employment journey that takes one from a major Canadian city to a frontier oil and gas town in northern British Columbia isn’t normally regarded as a recipe for getting ahead. But then, careers can take surprising turns.

“I sort of stumbled into the credit union system by accident,” jokes Amie Warkentin. When Warkentin’s husband learned in 2012 that he was being transferred from Winnipeg to Fort St. John, a town of 20,000 about 800 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, she surfed the Internet and found a position at North Peace Savings Credit Union (13,000 members, $562 million in assets). A month later she was on the job, being encouraged by the small but innovative credit union to learn all she could about the change management field. By 2016, Warkentin had earned her professional credentials in change management methodology and, thanks to North Peace Savings management, was nominated for the Canadian Credit Union Association’s National Young Leaders Award. Then, her career got yet another turbo-charged boost. While accepting the award that year in Saskatoon, she met two future mentors. They discussed a job that seemed tailor-made for her and today she is Credit Union Central of Manitoba’s manager of strategy and projects.

Warkentin is among some 75 young people in Canada’s credit union system whose careers in the past 15 years have taken a positive turn after they won the association’s National Young Leaders Awards. Winners, who must be no older than 35 and have worked for a credit union for at least three years, have advanced into the senior executive ranks and even to the CEO level, thanks to being identified early as among the best and the brightest in the country’s credit union movement.

Korinne Collins, CCUA’s vice-president of professional development and education, says the awards were started in 2003 to “acknowledge the up-and-comers in our industry” and are more about retaining than recruiting. Each year the award is presented to five credit union employees from across Canada. One of them receives a $10,000 scholarship to attend a leadership development course at a Canadian university.

Warkentin and other winners say that the learning doesn’t stop with the prestigious award, it continues with service to the National Young Leaders Awards and other CCUA committees, alongside senior executives.

Brian Aalbers, another winner who co-chairs the National Young Leaders Awards committee with Warkentin, extrapolates upon the many benefits. “You get exposure to the broader system, CCUA people and initiatives, plus you get the opportunity to collaborate with like-minded leaders to make an impact on the system,” says Aalbers, who is now vice-president of human resources at Libro Credit Union in London, Ont. (105,000 members, $4 billion in assets).

Ryan Gobolos from Servus Credit Union (380,000 members, $14.4 billion in assets) in Alberta has a similar story. At first, Gobolos didn’t think that his experience was worthy of an award but then his boss encouraged him to apply, just as he turned 35. Gobolos won the award and the scholarship, which he used to pay for a leadership course at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business. “I do believe that going through the award process and getting in front of our executive team and winning the scholarship helped my career,” says Gobolos, who was later promoted to vice-president treasury. “If you look at some of the former award winners and where they are now, they are the senior executives within the system.”

David Kropp, who started his career in New Zealand as a print journalist, now serves as assistant vice-president, communications and public relations at BC’s First West Credit Union (247,000 members, $9.9 billion in assets). Winning the 2017 award and scholarship, Kropp says, gave him the “opportunity to contribute at an even higher level in the system by participating in the national advocacy day for credit unions, Hike the Hill, in Ottawa. Seeing things from that system level and the coast-to-coast perspective was a really great experience.” ◊