The Voice of Canadian Credit Unions
Education / Human Interest /  •

Guiding lights that share their glow

In the National Mentorship Program, protégés flourish. So do their mentors

Mentoring is a great and noble exchange, recognized as a win-win for everyone involved. Mentors get the deep satisfaction of giving back to the bright sparks in their field.

And studies show that employees who are mentored earn higher salaries, receive more promotions and enjoy greater career satisfaction than those who are not.

That’s what prompted Credit Union Central of Canada (CUCC) to establish the National Mentorship Program (NMP), which emerged from two separate, six-month CUCC pilot projects starting in 2008. That year, a National Young Leaders Mentorship pilot paired 10 mentees, aged 40 and under, with CEOs and vice presidents as mentors. Then, in 2009, the Canadian Business Owner Strategy mentorship pilot paired eight commercial lenders with more senior lenders. Each pilot was so successful that participants recommended a full-scale rollout. In response, CUCC inaugurated the NMP in 2010. A second stream, focusing on the commercial sector and agriculture, was added the following year.

The National Mentorship Program teams up mentors and mentee from different provinces, with the goal to enhance mentees’ skills and broaden their perspectives

The NMP runs annually from April to October with an average of 54 pairs in the leadership stream and another 10 pairs in the commercial/agri-business stream. Potential mentees who apply “are recommended by the leadership team in their organizations, while mentors self-identify,” says NMP coordinator Joan Ellis. She starts the matching process in mid-March. “I pair them up based on what’s on their CV and what they say they want from the program,” she explains.

The program, in which a mentor and mentee from different provinces are usually teamed up, is aimed at enhancing mentees’ skills and broadening their perspectives. Each mentor/mentee duo signs a two-page partnership agreement based on preliminary talks about what they hope to achieve, the processes and tasks to be undertaken and what success will look like at the conclusion of the mentorship.

Due to distance, mentor and mentee seldom meet face-to-face. Instead, they hold two one-hour phone calls each month, sending emails in between sessions. “The mentee drives the agenda of the meetings,” says Ellis. It’s not unusual for a mentee to do three or four hours of reading or other homework between sessions.

Participants give the NMP high marks. Of the class of 2014, 100 per cent of the mentors and 93 per cent of the mentees who replied to the post-mentorship survey said they would recommend the program to others. Here are some of their stories.

Gaining confidence through collaboration

Who’s worthy of a substantial loan? Who isn’t? When you’re a credit manager at a financial services co-op, making those pronouncements can be intimidating.

Charlina Westbye, a commercial account manager at Kawartha Credit Union (50,000 members, $1.14 billion in assets) in Peterborough, Ontario, knows this firsthand. Although she has worked for more than 13 years in the field of commercial credit, “I still felt insecure about some of the credit decisions I was making,” she says. “I was looking for affirmation that I was doing my job correctly. Also, I wanted to know how another account manager from another credit union would look at [those decisions].”

So Westbye sought out the National Mentorship Program and in short order she was paired with Karen Fox, commercial credit manager at Libro Credit Union in London, Ontario (95,000 members, $2.8 billion in assets).

“I had a great experience,” says Westbye. “My objective was to build my confidence as a commercial account manager. I would talk about a difficult file I was dealing with. Karen helped me determine the best questions to ask and the best products to recommend. Then we would discuss how [the loan in question] would benefit the credit union and the member and come to a consensus.” By the end of the mentorship, Westbye confirmed that her decision-making process was indeed solid.

“I had a great experience. “My objective was to build my confidence as a commercial account manager”

—Charlina Westbye, Kawartha Credit Union

Westbye also took her mentor’s advice to simplify loan evaluations, following the Five Cs of credit: character, capacity, conditions, capital and collateral. “Whenever I’m really struggling on a deal, I answer those questions and say, Does it make sense? It’s either a yes or no. That’s made my job easier.”

Learning to lean in

Another big fan of the program is Nancy Crockett of Kootenay Savings Credit Union (39,000 members, $1.03 billion in assets) in Trail, British Columbia. In 2012, while manager of sales and service, she enrolled in the NMP leadership stream for guidance in making the most of her experience and new MBA. “Usually you submit a resume, fill in a questionnaire on your goals and objectives and the NMP matches you with someone,” says Crockett. “But I asked if I could approach someone who wasn’t even in the program to mentor me.”

She wanted the perspective of a female executive working in a credit union larger than her own. Her choice was Shelley Besse, president of Envision Financial (168,000 members, $6.5 billion in assets) in Langley, British Columbia, whom Crockett knew only by reputation.

Besse agreed and the pair focused on Crockett’s personal leadership style and strategic planning skills. The two areas intersected: Crockett saw the need for a strategic plan for her credit union’s development, but hesitated to take the initiative and write one, arguing that it was a job for a higher-ranking executive. She says Besse asked her, What makes you say it’s not your role to do that? What’s the worst that can happen if you put something together?

Besse also helped by making her professional network available to Crockett. “She invited me to her credit union and I met with her AVPs in different departments. This helped me develop the skills that I needed in each area of business to pull together a plan for our strategic direction.” When Crockett created her plan, the CEO of Kootenay Savings accepted it, she says, “and we’re now embarking on a member experience strategy.”

Crockett also learned from her mentor to be less self-conscious about voicing her aspiration to become part of the executive. “If I say it out loud, I don’t want my boss to think I’m a career climber,” she said to Besse, who again, flipped the question: “If you don’t say it, how will they ever know? What’s stopping you from asking your vice president what you need to do to reach the next level?” The advice proved sound and in April 2014, Crockett was promoted to vice president in charge of retail operations for Kootenay Savings’ 12 branches – the first woman named to its executive. She has also participated in the NMP as a mentor.

Studying with a master

Rob Unruh, commercial account manager at Access Credit Union (42,000 members, $1.9 billion in assets) in Winkler, Manitoba, read about the NMP in an internal newsletter and approached his boss, a past NMP mentor who recommended he become a mentee in the leadership stream. He was paired with Keith Richard, now chief risk officer at Connect First Credit Union (100,000 members, $3.9 billion in assets) in Calgary, Alberta.

The pair chose communication as one of the areas where Unruh could upgrade his leadership capabilities. As a resource, Richard recommended Unruh read Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence, by Amy Jen Su and Muriel Maignan Wilkins.

“Finding my ‘signature voice’ meant finding ways to cut the noise out and be an efficient communicator, whether in a boardroom setting or a networking setting”

—Rob Unruh, Access Credit Union

“We divided the book into five or six segments and talked about how different parts were applicable to my career,” Unruh says. “Finding my ‘signature voice’ meant finding ways to cut the noise out and be an efficient communicator, whether in a boardroom setting or a networking setting.”

Unruh did exercises from the book and Richard offered advice based on his experience. Unruh says he developed a better sense of how to carry himself, when to speak and when not to speak. His improved communication skills have made a difference: he’s been invited to serve on commercial lending committees with older, more experienced colleagues and says his leadership potential has been advanced.

Unruh did exercises from the book and Richard offered advice based on his experience. Unruh says he developed a better sense of how to carry himself, when to speak and when not to speak. His improved communication skills have made a difference: he’s been invited to serve on commercial lending committees with older, more experienced colleagues and says his leadership potential has been advanced.

“Everything we talked about, every resource and book we read, was very focused on my career,” says Unruh. “In that sense, I found it more applicable and beneficial than most other education I’ve taken.”

Listening – not directing

A good mentor can also help a mentee make a difficult choice. Soni Chachad had been manager of Prosperity One Credit Union’s Oakville-Mississauga branch in Ontario for four years when she enrolled as a mentee in the leadership stream last year, seeking advice on how to gain a more senior financial management role. In mid-mentorship, she was offered a new position as branch manager of FirstOntario Credit Union (101,000 members, $3.6 billion in assets) in Stoney Creek, Ontario.

The decision was hard for Chachad, since Prosperity One was merging withTeachers Credit Union to form Tandia (30,000 members, $1 billion in assets) and she stood to be involved right on the ground floor. “I was so torn,” she recalls. She credits the mentoring of Cindy Bennett, vice president of operations at Beaumont Credit Union (4,800 members, $247 million in assets) in Beaumont, Alberta, with helping her work through her options.

“Cindy took me through a self-realization process and had me make a list of the pros and cons”

—Soni Chachad, FirstOntario Credit Union

“We spoke for many hours last April when I got the job offer,” says Chachad. She considered senior management’s vision for FirstOntario, but the deciding factor was work/life balance. As the mother of two, it mattered to Chachad that the Stoney Creek branch is close to her home. “Cindy took me through a self-realization process and had me make a list of the pros and cons. She never came right out and said, ‘It’s a bigger credit union. Go for it.’”

Coming back for more

Devin Selte was a 16-year veteran at a Servus Credit Union (377,000 members, $13.4 billion in assets) branch in Stony Plain, Alberta, when he enlisted as a mentee in the leadership stream last year with the aim of becoming a branch manager. His mentor was Stephen Bolton, president and CEO of Libro Credit Union. “Any time you apply for a branch manager position,” says Selte, “the credit union looks for a plan on what you’re going to do in your first 30, 60 and 90 days. Putting that on paper and getting feedback from Stephen contributed to a great presentation and helped me get that position.”

Bolton has a strong understanding of a credit union as part of a community, says Selte. “When you have someone like that who can give you insight on how to connect with your membership, there’s huge value in that. I was able to incorporate some of that into my plan.”

Selte was promoted to branch manager in Stony Plain last September and he is back in the NMP this year with a new mentor: Rob Grundison, chief relationship and sales officer at Coastal Community Credit Union (79,000 members, $1.82 billion in assets) in Nanaimo, British Columbia. Selte has a new goal: “I want to be a senior leader at a credit union in the next five years,” he says.

Mentoring the mentors

It’s not only the mentees who benefit from the NMP. Mentors also stand to gain. Stephen Bolton started mentoring in 2012 when he became head of Libro. This year, he is working with his third mentee. From mentoring Devin Selte, Bolton gleaned knowledge about the cultural issues and best practices in a larger credit union. Also, he says, “as we talked about what each of us has done, it’s been a strong reminder to me of lessons learned over time that I’d forgotten.”

While mentees usually drive the agenda, Bolton surprised his mentees by launching a freewheeling discussion about work/life balance. That kind of open dialogue on personal issues can only flourish once a relationship of trust has been built, he says. It’s up to mentors to create that comfort level early in the process by showing their own vulnerability.

“You reach a stage in your career where you think you have some things you can share”

—Corvyn Neufeld, Cornerstone Credit Union

Corvyn Neufeld, vice president of human resources for the past 15 years at Cornerstone Credit Union (25,000 members, $916 million in assets) in Yorkton, Saskatchewan, has advised three mentees. He became involved in the NMP because “you reach a stage in your career where you think you have some things you can share.”

But Neufeld says he learned as much as his mentees did, “if not more.” His first mentee, a human resources manager from British Columbia, kept notes of each session and brought them with her to the following session for review. She also articulated her objectives at the start of each meeting.

Neufeld was so impressed that he applied her approach to his subsequent mentoring. “If the mentee wasn’t as organized, then I took minutes to keep them organized and also to hold them accountable. It’s one thing to say, ‘I want to tap into this person’s experiences,’ but another to actually use those experiences.”

FirstOntario’s Soni Chachad sums up nicely the value of the NMP, which she says helped her evaluate herself and move ahead faster than anticipated. “If I had to depend on my own life experience, it would [have taken] me a decade.” ◊