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For the past few years, the Gary Plank Scholarship has allowed the Foundation to send four professionals to the World Credit Union Conference. Amongst other factors, the recipients were selected based on a demonstrated commitment to the credit union cooperative model and to further development within the international credit union system.
This year’s conference was held in Belfast, Ireland, and brought together 1,862 credit union leaders from 55 countries. We sat down with three of this year’s Gary Plank Scholarship recipients to ask them about their experience at the Conference. All three expressed a deep enthusiasm for the Conference and feel it’s made a tremendously positive impact on their lives. We were so inspired by these conversations and hope that as you read through their experiences, their excitement and energy jumps off the page!
Scott Sager, Chief Financial Officer for Trona Valley Credit Union
This was Scott’s second year as a Gary Plank Scholarship recipient and attendee of the World Credit Union Conference, and he couldn’t say enough about how positive his experience has been. In particular, Scott felt that the abundant opportunities to network with Credit Union professionals from all over the world was of tremendous value. “I really think that seeking out new perspectives is important. At this year’s World Council Meeting, it was interesting to see that most of us are experiencing the same development issues, regardless of where we are in the world. These discussions created a real sense of comradery and also allowed me to examine these challenges, and their potential solutions, from different angles.”
Two of Scott’s favorite break-out sessions included one that was focused on current research from the field of NeuroLeadership, a discipline focused on using hard science to transform leadership effectiveness, and another about the importance of diligent data security and being fully prepared for potential breaches. As the direct supervisor for Trona Valley’s compliance manager and fraud prevention specialist, Scott was able to bring home resources and ideas for strengthening their ability to protect member information in any circumstance.
Scott was fortunate enough to be able to take some additional time off after the Meeting so that he could see Belfast and all of Ireland with his wife. He not only enjoyed learning the history of the area, but also getting to know the people of Ireland, whom he describes as some of the friendliest, helpful and considerate people he’s ever met.
He encourages anyone considering attending next year’s conference, which will be held in Vienna, to do whatever it takes to attend. Scott wishes he could go every year! Not only was he able to come home with new information and fresh perspectives that will support his work at Trona Valley, he’s gained a new set of lifelong friends from all over the world as passionate as he about the Credit Union movement.
Mia Martell, Trainer for Pyramid Federal Credit Union
Like Scott, this was Mia’s second year as a Gary Plank Scholarship recipient and attendee of the World Credit Union Conference. Mia’s enthusiasm for the Conference is absolutely contagious. She felt that her experience at last year’s conference in Denver, CO was life changing and couldn’t imagine how this year’s Conference could measure up. And yet, this year’s conference surpassed all expectations. “The conference helps mold you professionally for sure, but more than that, it changes you on a personal level. The world is so big, and until you experience it, you don’t realize how many great people there are out there doing amazing things and making a huge impact on their communities.”
For Mia, the most impactful thing about attending the conference is the opportunities to get to know those professionals that make up the World Council’s Young Credit Union People Program (WYCUP). WYCUP is an annual scholarship program established in 2001 that is designed to engage and promote the next generation of credit union professionals and volunteers in the international credit union movement. “Being in a room with young credit union professionals – some in chief executive positions, management positions, operations and back office positions, new staff in branch level positions and even board members – is absolutely brilliant. Every conversation is an opportunity to learn new things, to grab ideas and run with them at home. We all formed such close relationships in just the few days we had together. I consider many of them to not only be valuable professional contacts, but life-long friends.”
One of the most powerful experiences Mia had at this year’s conference was to volunteer at a Belfast homeless shelter, The Welcome Organization, with fellow DE graduates. They got to lend a hand and help with some of the odd jobs and tasks that get pushed to the side because the staff are so busy taking care of their clients. One of the most empowering features of the shelter is a large, well-stocked craft room where clients are encouraged to create drawings and paintings, jewelry, furniture and countless other pieces of art. The shelter sells the items as one source of funding for things their clients need to get back on their feet. The day that Mia was there, one of the DE’s was trying to help them set up an Ebay shop so that they can upload their projects or creations and sell them online.
“It was moving to see how above and beyond the staff go to make sure that their clients are treated with dignity and respect, and not belittled for their situation. I began to think about how their organization was similar to ours. When our members come in we try to empower them, educate them, and assist them regardless of income or credit score, which was a mirror image of the shelter’s principles and mission statement.”
Of all the breakout sessions Mia attended, two were of particular impact to her. The first was a panel discussion with a diverse group of millennials. Mia enjoyed the insightful discussion about how the strengths of her generation can combine with the strengths of older generations to form powerful teams. She was also impressed with how some millennials had implemented successful social media campaigns at the Credit Unions to help spread their message throughout their communities. As a direct result, Mia has taken over Pyramid’s social media program as her newest project.
The second session that stands out in Mia’s mind as being particularly impactful centered on creating a “sales/ service culture”. Similar to CUNA’s Creating Member Loyalty program, the session emphasized the fact that powerful customer service is a key differentiator for Credit Unions over big banks. Mia explained that focusing more on member relationships rather than sales numbers is a deep part of the culture at Pyramid. She was able to bring home additional insights from this session to further strengthen that purpose.
Like Scott, Mia encourages anyone thinking of attending next year’s conference to do everything they can to make it happen!
Kara Kirschner, Organizational Development Manager for First CU in Arizona
This was Kara’s third opportunity to attend the World Credit Union Conference, but her first Conference on international soil. While she thoroughly enjoyed her first two Conferences, in Las Vegas and Denver, she felt that experiencing the Conference in another country provided her with a whole new perspective. “We really are in this together, no matter where you are and what you are trying to do in the industry, all of us are experiencing the same things. The conference provides an opportunity to fuel one another towards greater and better things. It forces you to question complacency and begin to think more creatively.”
As the only Gary Plank DE scholarship recipient, Kara immersed herself in all the networking opportunities available to opportunities available to DEs at the Conference. Like Mia, one of the most powerful activities she participated in was volunteering at The Welcome Organization. Kara feels incredibly grateful to have had such a meaningful experience, where she was able to make an impact by just showing up and being willing to work. “When you’re at something like this, with so many people, it’s so easy to feel overwhelmed and think, ‘Who am I? What can I possibly do to make a difference?’ The experience with other DE scholars at The Welcome Organization reinforced the fact that when you reach a point of despair and discouragement, you need someone to believe in you. This is what they do at The Welcome Organization and this is at the heart of Credit Union philosophy. The entire day really was philosophy in action and all of us played a part.”
Like Scott, some of Kara’s favorite break-out sessions focused on cyber security. Theresa Payton, the first ever female White House Chief Information Officer, led one of the sessions. Theresa is one of America’s most respected authorities on Internet security, net crime, fraud mitigation, and technology implementation, and really impressed upon session attendees what a serious matter this is. When the session was complete, Kara felt armed with new knowledge about how to protect herself, her family and her Credit Union members from the threat of cyber attacks.
Kara also attended the panel discussion devoted to gaining a deeper understanding of the millennial generation. During the discussion, Kara heard something that caused her to not only write it down in her journal, but circle it with stars and trumpets. In a packed house, with standing room only, one of the speakers made an extremely bold statement: He said that when trying to attract millennials, the Credit Union industry spends too much time talking about how they are different from banks. The problem is that younger generations don’t know what Credit Unions are and fear that they won’t be able to get the same services they know they can get at banks. He suggested a different approach – begin by talking about how we are the same. Once they understand that Credit Unions offer the same services and products as banks, it becomes much easier to win them over by sharing how Credit Unions are different – and better.
The statement unsettled the crowd, but on her flight home, Kara was able put this idea to the test. She began talking with the young woman seated next to her about being in Belfast for the conference. With a wary expression, the woman said, “What is a Credit Union? I don’t even understand what that means.” Kara answered her by first explaining how Credit Unions are the same as banks. She could see how that simple understanding put the woman at ease. Then, she was able to talk about the passion and the philosophy, which impacted the woman so much that she took Kara’s card and said she was eager to open an account.
When she returned to First CU, she shared this insight with her colleagues and watched as they were first hesitant, and then began to understand the wisdom in the approach. “There’s an expectation when you send someone to an international conference that they’ll come back with key insights that might shake things up a bit and make us all stretch. For me, this was it.”
For anyone considering attending the Conference next year, Kara encourages them to seek out as many opportunities for scholarships as they can and just go for it. She also encourages future attendees to seek out learning opportunities in advance that will help them prepare for such a rich opportunity. “Set specific goals for what you want to get out of it. Go with those things in mind, knowing you are going to get the best, most well rounded insight because you have an international audience.”