C.U. Women Who Lead: Lessons Learned From Judy Tharp
Few careers start as uniquely as the career of “C.U. on the Show” guest Judy Tharp, retired president and CEO of Piedmont Advantage Credit Union. After finishing college, Judy came across a newspaper ad for -Cape Fear Employee Credit Union, a new start-up in North Carolina. While she had bookkeeping, inventory, and customer service skills from working in her family’s business, she had little knowledge about credit unions. Still, she went on to interview and was hired as the Dupont CEO—at the age of 22.
In the episode, Judy discusses her 40-year career, from becoming a CEO to stepping back into a non-CEO role as a strategic move to landing an executive position at CUNA Mutual Group. She shares the insights she gained from her experience, how to get buy-in from a credit union board, and advice for rising credit union leaders. She also speaks particularly to female leaders and their unique challenges, such as managing gender bias, gender wage gaps, and family dynamics as a credit union executive.
From lower pay to questions about childbearing, Judy acknowledges gender bias is still present in credit unions today, as it was early in her career. With wage gaps, in particular, she noted many female CEOs “grow up in the credit union system,” working their entire careers to reach upper management. As a result, many women make concessions: lower pay for the opportunity to advance. She encourages women leaders to be more assertive in asking for competitive pay to close the gender salary gap.
Additionally, many rising female leaders may feel stuck in their current circumstances with family and childcare obligations, making an executive-level position seem difficult to attain. Judy discusses the importance of being goal-oriented and thinking outside the box to address challenges and achieve goals. For her, that involved lots of patience and a willingness to step back from her CEO position to work at a larger credit union and move out of her home state. “Sometimes you have to step back to step forward,” she says.
With decades of knowledge working at the strategic and upper management level, she and Doug also discussed the most effective ways to bring up the topic of adding executive benefits with a credit union board. Listen to the full interview to learn her three-pronged approach, which involves using empathy, data, and a knowledge of the talent marketplace.
Stream the episode to hear more about Judy’s long career and the lessons she learned along the way.
Doug English: (00:03)
Hello credit union executives. Welcome to “C.U. you on the Show,” where we give you up-to-date information on how you can reduce risk, keep key talent, and take a strategic approach to your personal financial wellness. Hosted by me, Doug English, a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional and former credit union insider with AcT Advisors.
My guest today is Judy Tharp. Judy is a retired credit union CEO with more than 40 years of experience working with credit unions. Uniquely, Judy began her career at age 22 as the CEO of a start-up credit union. And in this episode, Judy shares her experience as a woman leader in the credit union movement and discusses the importance of career goals and thinking outside the box, dealing with gender bias in the workplace, and using empathy when dealing with your board. Hi, how are you?
Judy Tharp: Doing great.
Doug: I’m so glad you’re here today to hear about how you got into the credit union movement and your emotional connection to credit unions and family history, and just kind of what got you started in the movement. Tell us about your progression through your career.
Judy: Thank you, Doug. So I guess one of the most unique factors about my career is that I became a CEO of a credit union in a start-up situation when I was 22 years old.
So that’s pretty unique. And to be honest, I probably just got lucky, but felt like I made a really good decision because I spent 40 years in credit unions and enjoyed all of my experiences. But I do feel like my childhood, where I grew up in a family business, was an important part of my success. My parents really taught me how to run a small business, such that when I finished high school, I knew how to run a business. I knew how to keep books, to type, to keep inventory, to collect bills, and customer service. So that’s kind of the environment I grew up in, when we were open six days a week from seven in the morning till eight, nine at night. So we worked really hard. My brother and I ran the business, and at the end of the day, we learned a lot.
When I graduated high school, I wanted a business degree because I knew I had the experience in running a business, but I needed a solid education to go along with it. And I wanted to finish as quickly as I could, so I could get married and marry the wonderful Wayne who I adored. So I went to UNC Wilmington and got my bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in management in three years. So got that done, got married, and got lucky with my first job, my first real job. I had a few jobs through the summers and that kind of thing, but I had a really good opportunity for starting a credit union. And I read about this through an ad in the newspaper. I didn’t really know much about credit unions, really like nothing at all. But I learned quickly.
From the very inception, you were there for the very beginning of the initial board of directors, the founding of that, the first branch, everything.
Yes. The way it worked was it was the DuPont Credit Union and the company actually had formed the board. So at the point that I was hired, there was a board, but that was about it. So yeah, it was a start-up. And when I started college, I thought I wanted to major in accounting for some reason, probably because I knew a lot about that.
And it’s exciting.
No, it wasn’t. That’s why I changed my major, but I had a lot of strong accounting, which really helped when starting the credit union. So then I was there for 15 years. I would say that I birthed it and I brought it to adolescence, but I knew my goal was to become a CEO of a much larger credit union. And I could not do that in Wilmington, North Carolina, a small town. So I knew I had to move on. I had a plan and that plan was to get some experience in larger credit unions and then move on toward my goal of becoming a CEO of a large credit union. So I did that. Sometimes you have to step back to step forward. So I actually stepped back as CEO to join a larger credit union in a non-CEO role, which is very hard because you give up control. But man, did I learn a lot. And I knew that was the part of my plan.
So you went from being in charge of the credit union that you were a part of starting for 15 years into a senior role at a much larger credit union and kind of learned the challenges of scale and complexity. Right?
Well, there are challenges in all credit unions, large, small, medium. Honestly, there’s a lot of similarity in the challenges because I think if you really understand the why of why credit unions exist, the challenges, the problems are very similar. It’s just on a larger scale. But I had the opportunity in two large credit unions to really contribute and learn. And those two credit unions had very different cultures. So I don’t really feel that I could have had a better career path. And then after working five, six years in both of those, I moved on to the world’s largest financial products and services company, CUNA Mutual Group for credit unions. And that also was a wonderful experience. I entered the company at a time of extreme transition. So I learned $20 billion company’s strategies, and I was a part of making some really big changes in the company and leadership roles for those changes. So I learned a lot there, too. And eventually I landed as CEO of Piedmont Advantage Credit Union back in North Carolina, where my roots are, and was there for 13 years. So you put all that together, Doug, and it’s a 40-year career I wouldn’t trade for anything
Takeaway for our listeners. What you already said is don’t be afraid to step back while keeping your eyes on your eventual goal going forward. I mean, do you want to expand on that from here.
I would expand to say stepping back to step forward, certainly, but also being goal-focused. My experience was that things don’t just drop in your lap from a career perspective, or at least that was not my case. So I think if you don’t have career goals, it’s going to be very, very hard to get where you want to be. And particularly for women, because I think women still have family obligations that seem to be more heavy for females than males, which makes it a little more difficult to be focused, but all the more reason why you should be to get where you want to be.
Back to going from that lead role to number two for a while, and then into the huge company of CUNA Mutual. So you really had a lot of different cultural experiences. And when you look back on those and think about, all right, you went through this step, this step, then you ended up at the goal. You ended up as the CEO. When you reflect on that path, what would you say to people figuring out their path? You really went in a variety of different directions. Any takeaways about kind of how that played out and what you would say to Judy 20 years in the past?
I would not change my progression, but for a lot of people, that would probably not work because of the patience that’s required to go from being in charge to working through all the learnings and looking at it as growth and development, rather than frustration that I’m not the boss anymore. That probably would not work for a lot of people. And the other thing is I have, as you know, Doug, a huge biggest fan in the world, support, and that is my husband, Wayne. That’s so important, especially with a woman, because like I say, there’s usually additional family obligations and Wayne has been not only willing to move with me as I moved around and progressed in my career, but he’s been my biggest fan toward helping quite honestly others to understand the situation. I mean, it’s just kind of sad that a lot of couples and families struggle with the female being the breadwinner, being one who has to make the changes for the career. And Wayne certainly is the role model for how to do that and do that well. And so now 40 years later, we’re supposed to be enjoying retirement, but we feel like we both have worked toward this goal because it does take a support group, whether that’s one husband or a whole family, to get you through the tough changes you have to make along your career path.
The spouse’s career is pretty important to you right there. They can have a—maybe in the post-COVID world that we’re living in. Now, it could be more possible for the spouse to physically move around, but maintain the same job. I imagine for a lot of families, just where you have to be for some jobs, just doesn’t fit with the need to move around and around. And you hear people needing to do that, to climb the corporate ladder, and that’s effectively what you did, but just through a variety of different organizations. And I can see how that would be really hard for families. And obviously, you know, with women traditionally having the dominant role in the home, that’s probably a bigger challenge. So one of the takeaways we’ve already heard is that, for women, it’s even more important to identify your goal and not lose sight of that. So you make those decisions in light of that goal, right?
Yeah. So, I recently spoke to the women’s global leadership group in North Carolina, and I’ll never forget this. I was on a panel with some other female CEOs and someone in the audience said to us that this was a young mother trying to progress her career in a very large credit union in North Carolina. And she said to me, I can’t help but notice that two of the three CEOs on the panel do not have children. And it’s interesting to me that as someone who does have a family, it seems a whole lot easier for you all to do what you did than for me to do what I’m trying to do. So do you have some advice for me? And it just, I mean, you can imagine that was kind of like a gut punch because there’s some truth to that, but here’s the key.
And here’s the advice I gave her. I think women particularly have to think out of the box on how to accomplish those goals. So like, in my case, I could have said after staying at Cape Fear Employees Credit Union for 15 years and birthing that baby, I could have said, you know what, I’m stuck because I’m in a small town, I’ll never be able to work for a large credit union, ‘cause there aren’t any here and there’s never going to be because we’re a tourist economy, but I didn’t take that attitude. I had to think out of the box to think, how can I get there? Number one, I got to step back as a CEO, number two, I’ve got to move and I’ve never lived anywhere else. Number three, my husband’s got to change his career. So I think women particularly have to get out of the box and think about how do I solve that problem.
So my advice to her was think, okay, I’ve got this childcare burden, but I have career goals. How do I mix the two? So I have friends who were female CEOs, and the way they got through that was with nannies. And so there are ways to work around the childcare situation, but it takes compromise from a spouse and it takes a village because you can’t do it alone. And so there’s a lot of personal dynamics within the family unit that have to be finessed to make that work, but there are ways around it. You just have to think differently than the way you think every day that I’m stuck.
Right on. Well, it’s interesting. I’ve seen executives in other industries actually take not only just the spouse and have he or she be able to move around and be flexible and I’ve seen them go a generation up and take either his parents or her parents or their parents with them as they move to different locations in the country. And they provide some of that daycare. I mean, an unusual and maybe difficult situation, but I’ve seen it in the small amount of folks I know and connect with. And that’s the definition of outside the box, right?
Yup, out of the box.
And that touches directly on our focus for today, which is the challenges of leadership as a woman in the credit union movement.
One of my earliest realizations of, honestly, it’s kind of a man’s world and particularly back then, when I was interviewing for the opportunity to start this financial institution, they, the board, had absolutely no knowledge of a financial institution and no knowledge of how to interview and the laws associated with such. So I was asked what my child-bearing intentions were at the age of 22. Yep. Back in those days. And honestly, maybe even more so in my career, I would be asked by members and community folks who would call the credit union and ask for a problem to be escalated to the top. They would get me. And quite often, when I was unable to satisfy people, they would ask for the man in charge. And Doug, my approach with all of this bias in the workplace has been to be firm, but use kind of an evolutionary approach rather than a revolutionary approach.
So my response, when I would hear that again, another kind of zinger, but my response was always very firm, but not defensive. You’re speaking to her.
Doug: Right on, Judy.
Judy: Yeah. So I kind of hope to leave a lesson, but not one that was offensive to the person. I’ll end with one that a lot of women struggle with. And that’s the pay; the notion of accepting lower pay and particularly in credit unions, because we’re kind of unique in that a lot of women who are CEOs of credit unions started at the bottom of the organization, worked their way up, never worked anywhere else and are willing to accept lower pay. When I started the credit union, the board said to me that their expectation was that I worked my tail off for a little money and they were so right about that, but I accepted it and that’s exactly what happened.
I kind of felt that a man probably wouldn’t accept the low pay. I kind of saw it as a long-term opportunity that I thought would pay off. And it did. So when men argue that I was complicit in allowing this kind of thing to go on, it’s just another example of how women do have to kind of go that extra mile and be a little more assertive with pursuing the money because it’s so easy, particularly in credit unions, to just kind of grow up in the system and you end up with less pay than a male CEO because you’ve kind of just evolved. And so that is a challenge I’ve seen along the way that I had to deal with. And I would encourage women to take that on because there is bias and still is. This is not an old habit; it’s still there.
So that’s the perfect transition into talking about how to bring up executive benefits with your board. So tell me about any stories to do with that experience.
Yeah. So I have always tried to use empathy in my credit union work because our members are owners. So that calls for a unique perspective on walking in their shoes because they are in fact, the owners of their business. And so in thinking about the board and going into discussion on executive benefits, I try to walk in their shoes and their shoes are that most board members do not have the type of experience that is usually associated with executive benefits. So I approached it as a learning opportunity for them or a teaching opportunity for me, as well as me understanding where they’re coming from, because oftentimes they don’t have benefits of this type and never have. So, them understanding is very important to supporting, and there are so many resources available to a credit union CEO to help educate the board on these types of things, as well as the talent marketplace.
So the way I approached it was with data sharing with them, a lot of data on both of those things. And first off, I would say that related to the why of executive benefits, retention of senior staff is greatly enhanced with executive benefits. And certainly my experience in credit union land is that I’ve always been in cities and towns where there were lots of credit unions, lots of good credit unions. So employees had choices of where they would work. And at least in a couple of instances, our employees played fruit basket turnover with credit unions because there were so many good options for moving around town. So you really need to be pretty on top of the environment around you in the credit union executive world. So knowing that you can perhaps enhance employees or encourage employees to stay with you through having some retention around executive benefits is smart, is smart on the credit union’s part.
And I made the point that this is not really about me, it’s about the company as it relates to retention. And the other thing is, at least in my case, our board knew that they were going to be looking outside for a replacement. And in that situation, if our credit union didn’t have an executive benefits plan, we’d be at a huge disadvantage in the marketplace. So quite often I’ve known credit unions where they wouldn’t have a plan and they would make up a promise, a commitment to a potential candidate that they would add these benefits once they come on board and in today’s world, that just doesn’t fly because they’re back to the stepping back step forward. That’s really hard to do in today’s world. And there aren’t a whole lot of people who are going to kind of live on that promise.
So those are probably the two, the two biggies that I felt like were important, educating the board and knowing the talent marketplace around you to be able to get the buy-in to move forward.
Think about what’s going on in credit unions today and sort of where you see the industry going in the future.
So I am still, even in my retirement, such a huge fan of what credit unions do for people. That’s what kept me going for 40 years. And it still keeps me going today because that is the why of why credit unions operate. So back in my early years, I would lead my boards to believe because I believed it that yes, we are a financial institution, but first and foremost, we’re in the people business. And so I believe today, Doug, that credit unions still are. And so some would call me old-fashioned, but I still believe that understanding the why of your business, whether you’re a credit union or some other organization, is really important to getting the buy-in and the support of your members, of your community, of your board. So to me, that still applies. And I hope that as our credit union industry grows and continues to develop, that we will hang on to that because I don’t care how large you are, that’s important.
That’s all the insider credit union knowledge we have for this episode. Can’t wait for the next episode. We’re always available through our firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s A C T-advisers.com. See you next time on, “C.U. on the Show.”
Speaker 3: (22:40)
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