Credit Union CEO: ‘Someone Invested In Me’

By Frank Witsil
Detroit Free Press

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Heidi Kassab, the president and CEO of Cornerstone Community Financial Credit Union talks about what it takes to get ahead in the banking industry, a field dominated by male executives. Kassab says that in the credit union world, they have a “women in leadership network” which is helpful in recognizing females in the field and supporting women move forward in their careers. 

Detroit Free Press

Heidi Kassab, the president and CEO of Cornerstone Community Financial Credit Union, got her start in banking at 15, when her former Brownie troop leader offered her a temporary summer job.

The job, she said, was to photograph documents on microfilm.

But the summer gig turned into a regular, part-time clerical position — and then, after she graduated from Oakland University, a career.

“I remember one time, I walked into the CEO office — which now, it’s probably not that big, but back then it looked like a big office — with this massive wood desk,” she said, recalling when she was in high school. “I remember going to the edge of the desk and touching it, and thinking: ‘Wow, one day this could be me.’ ”

Kassab — now 45 with teenagers of her own — said her former Brownie troop leader, Judith Hellock, was the credit union’s chief financial officer and became a mentor. She lived in the same subdivision, and had daughters who Kassab was friends with. After Hellock retired, Kassab hired her former boss to work for her part-time.

“I kept in touch with her my whole career, and owe a lot of my career to her,” Kassab said.

Cornerstone Community, based in Auburn Hills, has just under 70 employees, six branches — and 27,000 members.

Kassab talked about what it takes to get ahead in an industry dominated by male executives — and offers advice on getting to the top:

QUESTION: So what does it take to become an executive?

ANSWER: So many things have to line up just right. But a lot of it is drive and initiative. First and foremost, knowing what you want, but at the same time never forgetting it isn’t just you. I got here because I have amazing people I work with. You take chances on people. You invest in them, like someone invested in me. It’s who you work with who makes you look as good as you are. There is no way that I’d be here without those people. Some of them have moved on because they’ve gotten great training and they found great occupations other places. That’s a huge testament. Some are still here. It’s your own initiative. It’s drive. You give up things in life. You do. Work-life balance is something you have to remind yourself of all the time. You could sit at your desk 15-20 hours a day and never feel done.

Q: In some ways, though, it sounds like you had an inside track. You were almost groomed.

A: I didn’t use the word luck, but I think sometimes it’s being in the right place at the right time. There is always a facet of life that is luck. Some people don’t like to admit it. But, I do think think some part of it is luck. If that job wouldn’t have happened. If I wouldn’t have given up my free time at 15, I don’t know. I believe I’d still be where I am, I just don’t know it would be as early on. I was fortunate someone took an interest in me.

Q: So do people always need someone on the inside — so to speak — to help them get ahead?

A: I don’t think it’s a requirement. I do think that today, if we don’t take interest in working with people, it’s tougher to move up. I make a key point to recognize who in the organization has that drive and ambition in the organization and to especially work with them. Not everyone aspires to that type of role. You do give up other things to get to where you want to be. Someone recognized that in me, so I need to recognize that in other people.

Q: Is it harder for women to get in those positions?

A: At times. There are certain things that a female brings to an organization. Then I think other times it is tougher to bring a work-life balance into the position: When you want to go to one of your kid’s events. I’d say, as a working mom, we are our own worst enemy because we have that working mom’s guilt. It’s something you work through. But, if you work hard, the majority of people recognize that.

Q: Is it important for women to have their own networks?

A: It is important. We do that today. In the credit union world, we have a women’s leadership network. That’s so we can recognize women in the field. While most credit union employees are female, most of the positions in the top leadership are not. It’s still a little bit tougher to get to that point.

Q: What advice do you have for women who aspire to be in the job you have now?

A: Banking is a great career for anyone. It lends well to a female, especially. The hours we work are nice. If you work hard, and contributing back to the organization, and someone takes notice of that, being able to have that balance, we are fortunate.


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