We are now about 80 days out from the Iowa Caucus that will officially begin the Presidential election season. For those of us who live in Iowa, it seems that the political season never really ends. There are many valid arguments to be made that Iowa is a poor choice to play this important role and that this small state is not representative of the rest of the country. I can tell you that the people of Iowa take the responsibility seriously and many people are actively engaged in the process. As someone who routinely thinks about organizational leadership, it is a great opportunity to view how candidates position themselves as viable choices to lead the most powerful country in the world. And there are similarities in how we evaluate CEO candidates for credit unions although that doesn’t typically include discussions around the use of personal email, building a giant wall or determining if a mother was or was not attacked with a hammer.

It is likely necessary to be a bit of a narcissist to believe you are the best person to become the leader of the free world. As a credit union CEO, no one person can really be an expert in finance, lending, technology, marketing, retail operations and the rest of the critical functions needed to lead a successful financial institution. We don’t likely have any credit union CEO candidates with an ego the size of Donald Trump’s but I have heard enough candidates claim to have core competencies in all credit union operations to know there are a few mini-Trumps out there.

Having a strong belief in your own ability is essential to being an effective leader. But, as even Trump admits, you need to surround yourself with “great” people to be successful. That’s where some of the important but often intangible leadership qualities come into play. Is the prospective CEO able to recruit top talent to his or her team? Strong leaders do need a commanding presence and a confidence that attracts others. A critical question of potential CEO candidates is their track record in identifying, hiring and managing top talent. Have they also hired people who have moved on to bigger roles in the industry?

One fact everyone can agree on is that the banking world is changing rapidly and the successful credit union ten years from now will likely operate much differently than it does today. Simply asking candidates about their previous experience is not sufficient. Similarly, in national politics people focus on what they think is most important – the ability to manage the economy, expertise in foreign affairs or possibly alignment on social issues. But inevitably, the biggest challenge the President will face during his or her term will be something unforeseen on Election Day. The same is likely to be true for the credit union CEO. You may believe you need an expert in finance or lending due to the current situation, but the biggest challenges the credit union will face in the next five to ten years are likely issues that have never been faced in the past.

If you are hiring a CEO you should look at their professional accomplishments and past experience is critically important. But you also need to try and assess their ability to assemble and lead a team of experts and ask how they will successfully navigate changes in the economy, demographics, technology and regulations. The key strategies to future success will be different than they are today or have been in the past. The most successful leaders will need to rapidly adapt to change and identify the potential threats and opportunities available. Iowa has a mixed track record in selecting the future leader of the free world. Credit unions have a better history of identifying competent CEOs but the stakes are continuing to grow and it is likely only exceptional leaders will be able to navigate the challenges to achieve significant success well into the future.

Jim Hansen

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