Although his business card reads CEO, Mike Valentine prefers to think of himself as a coach. Valentine came to BCU—now the fourth-largest credit union in Illinois—29 years ago. Its offerings, from credit cards to checking accounts to home-equity loans, have attracted more than 175,000 members and accounted for capital reserves of $150 million. Valentine uses a trusted set of rules that guide his work in setting the organization’s direction and leading his 400 employees.
1. Never be afraid to hire people smarter than you
Early on in his career, Valentine received a call from a headhunter who was looking for a loan and collections manager for a credit union. He agreed to meet with then CEO, Rex Johnson, and became the first management person hired at BCU. Then in its third year, the company had just 15 employees and $15 million in assets. Johnson and Valentine worked side-by-side to build the business. In 1987, they merged with another credit union to become a $100 million institution. While he left the credit union briefly to pursue consultancy, Valentine realized his true passion was for BCU and returned as its CEO in 1994. Throughout his tenure, Valentine has maintained one philosophy when it comes to building a management team: hire smart. “Any good leadership team needs different perspectives,” he says. “Bringing together smart people, with varying skills that complement one another is what really takes the credit union to the next level.”
2. Get to know your team and treat them well
For Valentine, BCU is more than a workplace—it’s a family. He recently helped celebrate one employee’s 30th year at the credit union. “I knew her when her career just began, I saw her get married, and I’ve celebrated the birth of her two kids,” he says. Over nearly three decades, he and his executives have worked to create a caring culture in which employees are nurtured and respected. Treating employees well fosters loyalty and motivates positive performance. BCU has several programs in place that help accomplish this. A fitness center encourages wellness, ice-cream socials and family picnics promote interaction, and incentive programs reward sales and service excellence. All this, coupled with good, old-fashioned open communication, makes staff feel valued.
The strategy is working. BCU’s staff is comprised of a core group that has stayed with the credit union over many years—and now, Valentine even finds himself hiring the children of former employees. But he’s quick to point out, loyalty is a two-way street. “We return the favor by giving our employees room to grow and change and to develop around the organization,” he explains. By allowing the transitions, he avoids creating a stale environment. At BCU, this works especially well with the leadership team, which Valentine hopes will enthuse those who have management aspirations.
3. Invest in others and take time to listen
After almost 30 years in the industry, Valentine sees himself as a coach—a role he says is important for any successful leader. “Mentoring is the most rewarding thing you can do professionally, because you get to watch someone grow,” he says. And while some protégées may leave the organization, a good leader should be happy to see them find the best place to showcase their talents.
One employee, who has worked at BCU for more than 20 years, is now a vice president. Valentine takes great pride in having helped that person grow and develop from an intern to marketing staff to a manager of multiple areas, and now as a current member of the senior leadership team. BCU has official mentoring and top talent programs that annually fast-track 15–20 employees for leadership development. The candidates receive special assignments and coaching to develop their skills. They further sharpen their talents by giving formal presentations to upper management and presiding over critical teams.
4. Be who you are and let your employees do the same
Valentine, a humble leader and approachable boss, is often found chatting in the break room or getting to know entry-level employees. He believes that people thrive when they maximize their strengths in roles that match their capabilities and personalities. “I look for leaders whose skills complement one another,” he explains. “It ensures we all play to our strengths and creates a healthy environment for continuous learning.”
Perhaps that’s why Valentine and BCU focus so much on coaching and mentoring, even though developed employees may exit to pursue other opportunities. “A relational approach is risky, because you might lose good people to other opportunities, but it’s worth the risk,” Valentine says. “It fosters talent in your organization, and if you have good people, good things will happen.” One former employee came to BCU from a previous leadership role to hone his skills under Valentine’s tutelage before moving on to become a very well-respected industry professional.
Valentine believes in developing employees as much as possible so the credit union and its people grow in tandem, despite the occasional departure. His faith in BCU’s employees, his trust in their desire to learn, his compassion for their struggles, and his ability to instill confidence, has attracted talented and loyal candidates through the years.
Valentine constantly pushes leaders to see BCU as a learning organization. The credit union is member-owned, and its managers learn by listening. Thirteen senior managers each spend time in the BCU call center, the hub of the company’s member activity. They must remain silent during a service call. By listening, BCU’s leaders discover what’s really happening within the organization and how internal processes impact the members.
And Valentine himself makes it a priority to avoid complacency. “I could take my foot off the gas, but that won’t keep us relevant in a very fast-paced industry,” he says. “We don’t only want to be viable, we want to be vibrant.”