According to data released by the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), 51% of credit union CEOs are women. Still, women are less represented in the credit union workplace now than in the 1980s. Jill Nowacki and Judy Tharp join C.U. on the Show to discuss common workplace challenges women face, how employers can recruit more women, and what female leaders can do to pave a credit union career path.

Jill Nowacki has more than 20 years of experience working with credit unions and is now the president and CEO of Humanidei, helping credit unions foster growth and win the war on talent at all levels. Judy Tharp, a returning C.U. on the Show guest, is the retired president and CEO of Piedmont Advantage Credit Union with over 40 years of experience working with credit unions.

Why are Women Underrepresented in Credit Unions?

There are many timely and systemic reasons women may not advance to the executive level or decide to stop working altogether. For example, amid the Great Resignation, because women have historically been the lower wage earners in the family, and with a childcare shortage underscored by the pandemic, more women are choosing to leave the workforce.

Jill and Judy also acknowledge the everyday challenges women face in the workplace, from compensation inequity and managing “likeability” to the balance between growing a family and a career in a male-dominated industry.

In addition to reevaluating executive benefits to attract and retain top talent, Jill encourages employers to address these concerns to recruit more women who desire C-suite roles and career fulfillment outside of the home and offer the flexibility, support, and resources they may need.

How Can Women Climb the Executive Ladder?

Jill and Judy offer a few approaches for how women can stand out in the talent pool and position themselves for executive or CEO roles. For example, Judy took a strategic “step back to take a step forward” by leaving her CEO role at a smaller credit union to be an executive at a larger credit union organization. In the process, she was able to gain more experience and skills in a variety of levels before reaching her goal of leading a larger credit union.

Jill describes how boards often overlook candidates from smaller institutions because there is a perception they can’t lead a larger organization with sophisticated processes and challenges. She talks about ways to round out your resume and layer experience, including putting yourself in situations where you can work and learn alongside others in the position to which you aspire. For example, an executive from a smaller credit union can emulate the experiences of executives at larger credit unions by serving on local chamber boards, joining a CUSO, or networking with other CEOs.

Listen to the full episode to hear more, including:

  • Why women could enter a “glass cliff” scenario when becoming a CEO
  • The advice Jill and Judy would give to rising female credit union leaders
  • Jill’s 30/30 commitment and how it can benefit women, people of color, and the diverse memberships credit unions serve

Stream it now.


Judy Tharp, Jill Nowacki, and Humanidei are not affiliated with or endorsed by ACT Advisors, LLC.

Audio Transcription (pulled from the podcast)

Doug (00:00):

My guest today is Jill Nowacki, president and CEO of Humanidei. Jill works with credit union executive teams and boards to foster growth and win the war for talent at all levels. Also with me today is returning guest Judy Tharp. Judy is a retired credit union CEO with over 40 years of experience. In this episode, Judy and Jill share ideas for women leaders in the credit union movement, including common challenges and actionable ways to position yourself for an executive-level position.

Doug (00:01):
Welcome to the show, Jill and Judy.

Jill Nowacki (00:05):
Thank you.

Doug (00:07):
Jill, tell me, how did you get started working with credit unions?

Jill Nowacki (00:20):
My first job with credit unions was doing marketing for the Montana Credit Union League, almost 20 years ago this year. I took the job thinking I would do it for about a year; it was my kind of first career out of college. And I thought, after a year, I’ll have a lot of really great experience here that I can take on to another job that has more meaning or purpose. But I found my purpose in credit unions instead. And so 20 years later, I’m still here.

Doug (00:48):
What a great thing. And according to the data I saw CUNA put out, I think it was a little earlier this year, more women run credit unions than men. What do you think of that data, Jill and Judy? And why is that?

Jill Nowacki (01:14):
The data is very much skewed by asset size. And once we get above about $100 million in assets, we see that distribution shift quite a bit differently. When I was the CEO at the Credit Union League of Connecticut, our median staff size for credit unions was six. So half of the credit unions in Connecticut had fewer than six employees. In that case, the president/CEO at the credit union is not just the president/CEO. That person is a teller. They are a snow shoveler. Occasionally they are HR and IT and everything in between as well. And I think what we see in some of those smaller credit unions is people who started jobs as tellers and advanced up into the CEO role over time. And I think in both the bank and credit union industry, it’s really common to see more women in teller roles and those entry-level roles in financial institutions.

Judy Tharp (02:16):
Right, right. We talked about that last time, Doug. And Jill, I’d be curious to know what you think about this one, but that also contributes sometimes to inequity in the compensation of the executive because they did grow up in the system. And there’s sort of a—maybe it’s an undertone, I don’t know—but because of that, there seems to be less appreciation for maybe the expertise sometimes with boards. Would you agree with that? Do you see that?

Jill Nowacki (02:51):
I would. And there’s a concept outside of credit unions too. So we’ve all heard of the glass ceiling; I think we’ve heard less of the glass cliff. The glass cliff is this idea that, hey, if the job is hard to do, or challenging to do, or the organization is in troubled times right now, have a woman come in and see if she can handle it. It is almost like what have we got to lose? We might as well try it. And so it’s a story that’s commonly told like when Marissa Meyer became the CEO at Yahoo, there were a lot of questions around that—was that a glass cliff opportunity? So sometimes you see these more challenging things. I have seen a lot of women step into their credit union CEO jobs following something like maybe an embezzlement. Something that happened where the previous CEO left on less than great terms, and they needed somebody to nurture the organization forward, build it forward, take care of it, make sure the team was okay. And I’ve seen a lot of women step into it there. And then not only do you get the opportunity to prove your leadership in what’s already a really challenging situation. But then you also may end up with that situation where you’re also not being paid for the level of challenge that is there too. Because maybe the credit union is in troubled financial times or there’s something else and it’s almost being presented to the woman like: don’t you care enough about us to do this favor? And we do have a tendency to see, as gender-stereotypical as it sounds, we do have that tendency to just see women be like: Oh, I do love this place. I love this team. I love these people. I’ll put myself out there and give this a try.

Judy Tharp (04:44):
That was a great way to say that, Jill. There’s so much of that still in credit union land.

Jill Nowacki (04:49):
In internal promotions, when somebody internally moves into a CEO position, we do see less room in the negotiations as well. And so if a woman has been promoted through the teller ranks up to it, a board may be more likely to say, well, gosh, that’s a 10% or 20% raise for that person. She should be happy about that. That’s a great bump in pay; we don’t normally give somebody a 10% raise. Whereas if they’re marked to market that salary it may be a very different compensation level too.

Judy Tharp (05:34):
That’s why education is so important, to share the data of the full marketplace, which recruiters and executive comp folks share with boards to help them to know what the lay of the land is beyond their four walls.

Jill Nowacki (05:48):
We’re seeing a high number of CEO retirements right now. And a lot of those are people who have been in the roles for 20 years, 30 years. And so, perhaps over that time, there hasn’t been the need to really stop and scan the landscape. Some boards are good at doing that on a regular basis. They’ll look at those salary surveys. They look at the data every year to see what’s happening. But there can be some sticker shock that comes right now too. And sometimes that sticker shock makes people say, whoa, it’s going to be really expensive to get somebody from the outside; maybe we can just promote this person internally and get a better deal. Which does contribute to the inequity that comes in.

Judy Tharp (06:35):
Yeah, that’s a good segue into a question that I had. So we all hear about what’s happening right now, in our pandemic world, with so many people just quitting their jobs, so many people taking early retirement. And I know I get a little frustrated when people will make comments that this world is such a mess. Nobody wants to work, and I can’t find help and blah, blah, blah. And I always listen and then follow that up with what I think is the bigger picture of why we’re in this mess. And part of it is the story of women. I mean, there’s so many women who have had to quit their jobs to stay home to take care of their children because the daycare is so messed up right now. So to me, the answer to that question is much larger than there’s government money and people just don’t want to work. And so talk about what you’re seeing in credit union land now as it relates to this kind of exodus, and then, part two of that is there’s so much work at home still. And I cannot imagine how difficult that is in credit unions, because we’re in the people business. So can you speak to those two things, Jill?

Jill Nowacki (08:01):
Yep, there are so many different directions I could go with that too. Something that is really interesting, and I think credit unions have to consider this, is that it’s not just, we started the podcast with that: Hey, 51% of credit union CEOs are women, right? And if you look throughout the organization, most of the credit unions I work with will say 60% to 70% of our entire team is female. There are a lot of women working in credit unions across all levels. And a recent statistic I saw from the Department of Labor: Women are less represented in the workforce today than they have been since 1988. So going into the pandemic, women made up more than 50% of the total U.S. workforce. Coming out of the pandemic—hopefully we’re coming out of the pandemic—at this point today, women are less represented in the workplace than they have been since 1988. So when you look at credit unions and you say a lot of our frontline employees, a lot of our branch managers, these are often held predominantly by women and women are leaving the workforce, it is something to be cognizant of. I am getting ready to go speak at a conference very soon and I did some research from the credit unions in that state. And the responses were that the toughest place to find talent right now is in the entry-level positions. It is trying to find people coming in, entry-level up to kind of mid-manager level with it. And I agree, Judy, I don’t think it’s because people don’t want to work. I think it’s because they are in a place where there is a significant childcare shortage in our country. Because of that scarcity of childcare, what is available is incredibly expensive. And I think over the course of being driven to be home, to not have those options, it became clear how big of a challenge that was really creating. And it became a choice not of personal fulfillment, but truly a choice of how do you do what’s best for your family. And many people saw that, based on things like that scarcity of childcare, somebody had to stay home. And so often it has been women who are the lower wage earners in a lot of families right now. So it’s been an interesting place to look at. And it’s definitely something that I think, unfortunately, we’re just starting to see the beginning of this; I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. And it is requiring employers to really say, okay, this is an opportunity to make sure we’re positioning ourselves in our organizations as the place people want to be, and that we’re considering some of the systemic challenges that are penalizing women at work. So if, for example, your community does not have a lot of childcare options, and you have a workforce that depends on that, what can you do to provide flexibility or support that may help those people be able to get the career fulfillment they want, and still know that their families are being taken care of?

Doug (11:31):
Judy, in our podcast episode, you talked about your journey and a particularly interesting part was how you had to step back in order to continue your momentum upward. Can you just kind of briefly talk about that, and I’d like to have Jill comment on that same subject for women in the movement trying to work their way up.

Judy Tharp (11:58):
Sure, Doug. So Jill, just as kind of a step back to learn about my situation, I started a credit union when I was 22. And birthed it and took it through adolescence. And I was ready to move into a larger credit union so I could get more experience because I wanted to be a CEO of a larger credit union. But in order to do that, I had to leave the town I was in and find somebody that would hire me because I was still in a quite small credit union. And I’d done everything. I started a business. I started a financial institution. I mean, it was a wonderful experience. However, it was still a small credit union. So I set a goal, a personal goal, to become a credit union CEO in a larger credit union—much larger. But I had to give up a lot to do that, one of which was the position of CEO. So I had to step back to take a lower position in a larger credit union in a different city, move the family, and actually do that several times before I got where I wanted to be. But during that process, at each stop along the way, I really deepened my knowledge, my experience, and got myself ready for what I had set my goal for. So I stepped back from a position’s perspective to step forward. It’s very hard to do. It’s risky. I think it only works if you stay very focused on that end result. Because it’s easy to go somewhere, you make a little more money, you get settled, and you go, well I’m cool. No, you know, you’ve got to, it’s hard, especially with a family. I don’t have children. But when you have children, it’s even harder than it was on me and my husband to keep moving like this. So anyway, that was stepping back to step forward. And I am of the belief that you have to do that sometimes. And I warned Doug that you might disagree with that. And if you do, that is totally fine. Tell us what you think.

Jill Nowacki (14:04):
So often when I am helping larger credit unions find CEOs—so let’s say it’s a credit union with $500 million in assets or larger looking for a CEO. Their criteria will be either someone who’s already been a CEO of a similar asset sized credit union or an executive of a billion dollar plus credit union. So in that case, not a CEO of a billion dollar plus credit union, but maybe a VP or an EVP. So somebody who’s been in the C-suite at the largest credit union can come in and run this $500 million to billion dollar credit union, or someone who’s been the CEO of maybe a $350 million to $500 million credit union and wants to make that little step. So I think that’s absolutely supportive of what Judy experienced. And if I have a candidate from a smaller credit union who may have that experience really running all areas of the credit union, they’re often overlooked for that larger credit union CEO job. Because of concerns that they may not have the knowledge to run this sophisticated process or understand the regulatory requirements that come with a larger credit union. I have always said that I think the hardest job in the credit union industry is being the CEO of a credit union under $100 million in assets. Because you have to truly know it all. You have to know the strategic planning. You have to know the regulatory compliance. So I think that—and I use the word overlooked intentionally—because I do think that you could have a person who has been that CEO of that $20 million, $50 million, 100 million dollar credit union, that could be absolutely ready to move into that CEO job at a larger credit union. But there is a perception that they may not have the knowledge or the wherewithal to deal with the sophistication of the larger credit union compliance or governance challenges that they have. So I do think that it’s based on what I see often in the board-defined “ideal candidate profile.” That concept of being a CEO at the smaller credit union, and moving in to become a functional leader of a larger department at a bigger credit union can help round out that resume in a way that it creates that opportunity more easily.

Judy Tharp (16:38):

Doug (16:42):
Jill and Judy, I was hoping we could talk a little bit about how to make your way up the ladder. And ideally, our listeners would get so much value from talking to you, they would know how to take larger leaps than they might otherwise be brave enough to pursue. So the questions I had in mind and feel free to answer those that I didn’t think to ask, are: What do you do? How do you do it? How do you stand out? How long do you stay in place? What do you get involved in? What do you not get involved in? What is the ideal series of steps, if you can look back on a credit union career, that positions someone to go from that 100-million-dollar place to I don’t know, what’s the maximum leap that is a win? You tell me.

Jill Nowacki (17:36):
One of the points in my career that I was really proud of was that I was in my early 30s when I became a league president. And so at the time, there are two things that I say about becoming a league president. One is that when I became a league president, there were more league presidents named John than there were female league presidents. And I also will often say I was the only one who was in that decade; I was the only one under the age of 40 at the time. And so I definitely like to attribute that to having taken some steps and built some experience that got me there faster than maybe what could have been done. And a lot of that I attribute to layering on experiences. So not just being in one organization and focused on that, but looking for opportunities to do things like provide leadership through a CUNA Council, for example. Or to serve on the executive committee for the Northwest Credit Union Foundation board of directors so that I was getting those opportunities to work alongside, even though I wasn’t a CEO yet, I was getting opportunities to work alongside and learn alongside and strategically direct efforts with people who were in those CEO roles already. And that type of opportunity, not just to network with other leaders, but to truly work alongside them and be planning and strategizing and creating opportunities with people who had already been to where I wanted to go, I think was a really good way to prepare myself better for the steps that needed to be taken in order to move into those advanced roles. So that’s kind of, if I were giving somebody guidance now, and they were saying, well, I’m really eager to get there, but I’m concerned I don’t have the years of experience or I’m concerned I don’t have the right size of an organization experience. The question I would ask them is how can you layer that on. You can’t make your credit union be $500 million if it’s $100 million. But what can you do that might emulate that—the experience a person could get at a $500 million credit union. So is it being on the league board? Is it becoming part of the CUSO where you have the opportunity to strategically direct and work alongside somebody else from the CUSO? Or is it going out and being the chair of your local chamber of commerce? What is it that you could do that may emulate that experience?

Judy Tharp (20:24):
Jill, I have a question that kind of takes off on one of your earlier points there. And that is that you have served on a lot of boards over the years where you were surrounded by all males. As you move up in your career, at least in my case, that happens more and more often. So quite often women face unintentional bias. Have you faced that? And how would you suggest women deal with that? Not just in the boardroom, but it could be anywhere.

Jill Nowacki (21:12):
Absolutely. And to your point, I was very fortunate that in the first two jobs that I had, I worked for female bosses. So my first job at the Montana Credit Union League, Tracy Kenyon was the president then and she’s still the president today. So I had that first opportunity to work in a role where somebody who looked like me had the job that I eventually aspired to. So it wasn’t until I kind of moved out and I started my career in the marketing function as well, which also tends to have a lot of strong female marketing leaders in our system too. When I became a league president, if I had a gathering where I brought my 25 largest credit unions together in Connecticut, I was the only woman in the room. And because they were all male CEOs of the credit unions that were over $75 million in assets. And so it definitely did create different experiences and different circumstances. And it caused me to have some awareness of things. A common issue that women encounter is this concept, there’s a Venn diagram where the overlapping area of what makes a good woman and what makes a good CEO is very small. So to be a good woman, for example, you’re supposed to be really likeable, and warm and affable. But to be a good CEO, you’re supposed to be very decisive and clear, and sometimes those things may appear to be mutually exclusive, or a woman may be penalized if she’s perceived, for example, as being too nice. People might see her as being too soft to really make the difficult decisions. However, if she’s not perceived as being nice enough, then they’ll think she’s unkind. And then they won’t want to work with her from that side of it. And so that’s a difficult thing to navigate, that likeability idea. There’s another concept, it’s called navigating the double bind. And this contributes to that pay equity issue. Unless you negotiate for your salary, you are unlikely to make the maximum sort of salary that you likely could. But sometimes women are penalized for negotiating because they aren’t expected to negotiate because historically they don’t advocate for themselves. And so that’s this concept of navigating that double bind, where if you don’t negotiate for a higher salary, you’re not going to get it because you haven’t asked for it. But if you do ask for it, it might create feelings of ickiness, because it’s not what we expect a good woman to do necessarily. So those are some things that really, I think, impact women in the workplace and credit unions as well.

Judy Tharp (24:17):
For sure.

Doug English (24:17):
I thought it was really interesting, what you said to emulate the large credit union work experience. In thinking about what you said earlier, if you’re running a smaller credit union and you’re a victim of or a beneficiary of your times, right? What are our times right now? Loads of deposits, maybe not as much income activity. And there are other times when the sort of the ingredients are different. How do you succeed and stand out? You need to run your institution well, but then you need to be networking in the various groups. Then emulating the large credit union work experience, because there are some things that you’re not going to be doing at all in a 100 million dollar credit union that you’re going to be doing in a $300 or $500 million credit union. Any further thoughts on that? I think that is very, very insightful. Maybe we’ll get some more specifics on ideas on that from either of you.

Jill Nowacki (25:45):
It may be common at a smaller credit union if you have to be the teller, and be the CEO, and be the compliance person, and be the snow shoveler, so you may not be able to, or you may not feel like you have the time to get out and be on the board of the local chamber of commerce. Or you may not have the time to join the league board in your state. And so it may be that those things are more commonly done at larger credit unions. Or for example, when I was talking about this in reference to the idea of when a credit union board of a $500 million or a billion dollar credit union is saying well, we have a more sophisticated investment portfolio. Or we have a more sophisticated product mix. So what could an executive do at a credit union that doesn’t have that asset size that could still expose them to some of that stuff? So is there a CUSO that the credit union might be connected to that they can go out and be on the board of this CUSO. Or network with the other leaders of the CUSO, learn alongside them. Many groups, like PSCU, for example, have different user groups where they have people coming in from their credit union clients, and giving advice on the products or the work that they’re doing. So is there an opportunity as a smaller credit union leader to get on a working group like that with one of your vendors that you have, and you’re in that group working on product design or program design alongside executives from larger credit unions as well. And getting more involved in seeing some of the ways that others think, that others work, how board governance works in other organizations, as well as being able to bring those examples into your job search. So if somebody asked the question of talk to me about your governance model, and maybe your board is more of a rubber stamp board, but you’ve been on this board that uses a different model, then can you rely on both of those experiences as you talk through where you’ve gained experience and how you can apply it to that job you’re looking at.

Judy Tharp (28:16):
From day one, I always felt that it was my responsibility to get engaged in those kinds of outside activities. Not as something that is tacked on as responsibility #10 when you’ve got time, but it’s a requirement to be a CEO. I don’t care if you are in a small credit union. So that’s the way I’ve always looked at it. So I was always involved from day one. And I feel that I personally benefited from that probably more than my credit union, because I learned, as you said Jill, with every organization I’ve ever been a part of. So I say that should be a requirement for any credit union CEO. And I know it’s hard. But it’s very important to the executives personally as well as the business. And I guess in my case, too, another thing I did, and I guess you’ve kind of done this too Jill, is I was in credit union land forever. And I took a giant leap toward staying in the movement, but getting that different perspective from a CUNA Mutual perspective, which is the world’s largest financial products and services company. And boy did I learn, I mean, what an incredible experience, but talk about stepping back in a sense to step up. I was not anywhere close to being the CEO; I was a VP. But what an incredible experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I learned so much working for a huge company, $15 billion at the time. I don’t know what they are now. But the rigor of what project management looks like. I had project management teams working under me. That would never happen in credit union land. So I just would encourage everyone to branch out and look at these kinds of things as really requirements to move up in your career, not just something that you’ll do if you have some time left over.

Doug (30:38):
Well, Jill and Judy, thank you for the time that you’ve taken today. We’re going to wrap up today’s episode with any last thoughts for you two as leaders—current, former, future of the credit union movement for fellow women leaders of the movement.

Jill Nowacki (31:06):
I’m going to leave it with this, I think it’s something that is powerful. When I founded Humanidie in 2019, I said my reason for doing it is that I was making a 30 by 30 commitment. And the concept behind that is that by the year 2030, it is my goal to see 30% of key leadership positions in the system held by women and people of color. And I defined that as billion dollar credit unions and above, the trade associations, including CUNA, CUES, NAFCU, WOCCU, but the state trade associates as well. And at the time, you shared the number of the 51% female executives, at the time it was about 14.5% of the credit unions over a billion in assets had female executives. And about 5%, across the industry of CEOs of all asset sizes, were people of color. So we have work to do as a system to not just support women as leaders moving into those roles, but people of color moving into those roles as well. And as we continue to diversify the leadership of our system better, we will continue to see strong performance and credit unions be able to remain competitive and relevant to these diverse communities that we serve as well. So that’s my thought as I have made that commitment. And I’m certainly hopeful that something like this conversation will help for more women who are listening to say, you know what, I can take that big next step and I can go out and apply for that job that may look like a stretch and get in the consideration set for it.

Judy Tharp (32:59):
That’s really commendable, Jill, because your goal is not focused on yourself. Your goal is focused on making a difference in the world that surrounds you. That’s very similar to what my goal was. I had my career goals, but at the very beginning and still to today, I wanted to work in a business where I could make a difference in people’s lives. I think that’s what led me to credit unions. And it’s pretty cool that I got paid to do something that I was so passionate about. So I think to kind of wrap it up, I would say it is critical that you set your goals, and not just think that things are going to drop into your lap. Because particularly with women, it is very difficult to move up in your career. You’ve got to be planful. And you’ve got to be very determined. And you’ve got to realize that there’s personal commitments that surround that pathway, like family changes, etc. that you’ve got to plan out as well. But if you stay focused on that end result, and you keep it global, keep your goal global and not just self-centered on this is what I want of me when I grow up, that will lead you to success, particularly in credit unions.

Doug (34:27):
I would say that would lead you to success in everything. Thank you so much, Jill and Judy.

Judy Tharp (34:32):
You’re welcome.

Jill Nowacki (34:33):
Thank you. Great to be here.

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