How Strategic CEO Succession Planning Can Position Internal Executives for Success
Planning to exit your organization as a credit union CEO ideally occurs years before your anticipated retirement date. Strategic credit union leaders understand the logistical and emotional process ahead of them. As a result, succession planning is an essential component to ensure the credit union’s success in the future, and the confidence of the credit union board, members, and internal teams. On “C.U. on the Show,” Doug welcomes a guest who is very familiar with the process, having completed the final stages of his succession plan and retiring in 2020 after 40 years of credit union service.
Steve Harkins is the retired CEO of the former SC Telco Federal Credit Union, now Spero Financial. Steve walks Doug and listeners through the specific steps he took to build trust and buy-in from his board while having an indirect hand in the candidate selection process by positioning internal executives for success. Steve explains that while he wasn’t permitted to select his successor, he could develop internal potential frontrunners for the job to assist in the organization’s future continuity and direction. Steve explains a few of the strategies he implemented, including:
- How he expanded VP roles and responsibilities, including plugging leaders into external credit union and community positions, to test capabilities, build experience, and identify potential CEO successors.
- How he proposed executive benefits, such as a 457(f) and split-dollar plan, as tools to retain top candidates and avoid external recruiting from other institutions.
- How he strategically surveyed the opinions of his board as a strategy to learn their concerns and close the gaps in skill set and experience in his potential successors from their perspective.
Steve’s detailed and helpful insight is a valuable asset for any CEO or executive with the goal to one day lead their credit union. Listen to the full episode to hear more about his successful exit plan, as well as:
- Exit methods from other CEOs that didn’t go as planned and what they could have done differently.
- A reasonable timeline that gives the board sufficient time to prepare and vet candidates.
- How to educate, manage, and support board members who may be unfamiliar with CEO succession planning.
Audio Transcription (pulled from the podcast)
Hello credit union executives. Welcome to “C.U. 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™ and former credit union insider with ACT Advisors.
My guest on today’s podcast is Steve Harkins. Steve is the retired CEO of SC Telco. Steve spent more than 30 years of his 40-year credit union career at SC Telco. And during his tenure, he oversaw an eightfold increase in membership and asset growth from 50 million to 400 million. In 2019, Steve received the lifetime achievement award from the Carolinas Credit Union Foundation in recognition of his dedication and leadership in the credit union movement. In this episode, Steve shares how he implemented his succession plan, including how he prepared his internal staff to become viable candidates and how he worked with his board. So Steve, tell us how you got started working with credit unions.
Well, first thank you for this opportunity. My kids have always said I have a face for radio and podcast. So now it has in fact come true.
Can you imagine how many times they’re going to listen to this over and over?
Uh, hardly. So guys, I stumbled into credit unions, honestly, by accident. I had no knowledge of their mission. I grew up in a very small town in Pennsylvania where there was not a credit union in sight and my dad was self-employed. So that was just not part of my world. Fortunately, I had gone to school in North Carolina and fortunately State Employees of North Carolina was hiring what they then called a loan officer trainee class. And they took a chance on me, rolling the dice and the jury was out for many years, but fortunately they hired me on. So in effect, when I started in 1979, yes, you young people will go, oh my God, this guy’s old. I started with them. And that then honestly became my life’s work because I retired from a credit union.
I only worked for two during my entire career, but my career spans from early ‘79 to early 2020, when I retired as the CEO of what was then SC Telco. I spent almost 10 years in State Employees Credit Union, which is the second largest credit union in the world. I worked my way up through the ranks and the normal progression for them. And those days worked my way up to become a VP. Of course there were many VPs at that organization, but I was then recruited to South Carolina as the vice president of operations at what was then known as SC Telco. And I was recruited by a former former boss of mine at State Employees Credit Union. So here I am, I left the second largest credit union to go to a smaller credit union. In fact, their assets were smaller than the deposits in my branch at State Employees Credit Union.
Fortunately for me, it allowed me the opportunity to write policy rather than just implement somebody else’s ideas. And that’s what I wanted. I wanted a bit more autonomy, a bit more to understand the operations better, rather than you’re going to get a memo on Friday, and guess what, we’re going to start this on Monday. So, get ready.
So you come into SC Telco as VP of operations. How long till you become CEO?
It was six years later and it was an unplanned departure by the CEO. The gentlemen that brought me in ended up leaving the credit unit, which I don’t think he had intended. I mean, when he left, it was somewhat unplanned, but to his credit, he had taken me from the point when I was brought in, what I knew how to do was run a branch and make loans.
And to a degree lead people, that’s essentially what you did and, and running a branch at State Employees credit beyond that, I had no idea what the back office did. It was some succession planning by, by my predecessor, Danny. He didn’t know he was leaving. He didn’t know things would come about as they did, but he also knew that he needed additional strength in his team. And he also knew that I was ambitious and that I was going to be a CEO somewhere. So whether it was there or somewhere else, he was trying to help me prepare for that. So, I’m indebted.
So that’s how you end up in the CEO chair. And now here you are as a retired CEO, enjoying the good life of mountains and grandchildren and whatever else you darn well please. So look back on your long career in credit unions and give us some takeaways around the strategic planning and succession planning and best practices that you’ve seen and things that you’ve seen to make sure you don’t do as well.
Well, let me give the listener a little bit of context. So during my time as CEO, we grew from roughly 50 million to around 400 million. That’s certainly by no means in any kind of record, but it was pretty, pretty good. I’m going to say before the listeners shut off the podcast right here, because I was not running a billion dollar, multibillion dollar shop, a couple of things, I think they need to know about SC Telco, which is now known as Spero Financial, but our credit union won back-to-back Forbes’ Best in State awards. So at the inception of that award, we won it. We subsequently won it the next year. And this is when I’m about almost out the door. And that is an award won. It’s voted on by the members. Only about 2% statistically of credit unions in the country win that award.
That’s an exclusive club.
So it is a very, very exclusive club. And in addition to that, we had won a statewide best places to work award in a medium-sized category. You know, at that point, I think we had a little over 100 employees and, again, based on feedback from our employees and the culture, we were very proud of our culture. And, again, that was an award we won just prior to my retirement. And we had won countless other awards in the community.
Growing the institution 10x during your career is a very big thing.
Well, again, it was fine. Growth was not our primary objective yet. I know my mantra to the board is we’re in a scale business. And if we don’t achieve some measure of scale, we’re just not going to be around. So I spent 28 years as the CEO, before my planned retirement.
And thankfully from my perspective, our succession planning process worked well. There were a few bumps, but ultimately it worked. And my number two at the credit union was chosen as my successor. And he hit the ground running and has done very well. He took over just as the pandemic was coming about. And as they say, bless his heart, he navigated it very well. They had just done a merger or a partnership with another credit union. So he had that to deal with as well as the pandemic and to his credit, and I think to the credit of a lot of the work that we had done, he was well-prepared. I’ve seen succession planning work at a lot of large credit unions and work very well. I’ve seen the lack of succession planning at credit unions of all sizes, particularly some large ones that their process either was not what it I think should have been, or it certainly didn’t work out like anybody had planned.
So with that, I’ll give you my view, my take on succession planning. The role of the CEO in its simplest terms is to create the vision for success, create the culture and attract the talent needed to achieve that vision. Now you can define the role in many different ways, but that’s just my take on it. If you have a CEO that does those things and does those things, then obviously you’re going to be successful as an organization. It cannot be understated how important having the right CEO to move into that slot, to that job, whether it be a planned or unplanned; unplanned is certainly trickier and it doesn’t always work out as intended because sometimes they run out of time. I’ve talked about the CEO’s responsibility. Let’s talk about the board now, what’s the board’s primary responsibility? Well, they’re there to oversee the credit, but the board has one employee, one employee only.
And their job is to hire, inspire, and challenge the CEO. Again, those are my words, but I think that’s true. And their job is to make sure that they get the right CEO. And yet many boards really don’t understand succession planning. And honestly, how could they? That is not part of their daily lives. The company worried about their succession planning because in a lot of cases, they had large talent pools that they can move people in. And if somebody else that was working through those decisions and there wasn’t one key person. Now, many of them work for companies that had chairman and CEOs and yes, at the top, somebody was hopefully thinking about those things. Uh, of course, a very different dynamic at credit unions; credit unions CEOs can have long tenure versus Fortune 500 CEOs, their tenure’s about 6 or 7 years and that’s from a couple of years ago.
Fortune 500 CEOs don’t tend to stick around. So it’s a much different dynamic in credit unions,
And boards have a long tenure as well, right some credit union board members are there for decades.
For some it’s a badge of honor how long they’d been on the board, good or bad. Again, I’m going to go on record as saying I had a very good board. We worked very well together. And in fact, I’ll give you some of the wins that we had, some of the hurdles that we met in this process, but overall, I have to give credit to our board. I think many CEOs don’t do enough to prepare their senior staff to become viable internal candidates. It can be very tricky. I understand that sometimes you don’t have the folks internally that perhaps you should, but whose responsibility is it— it’s the CEO who should attract those people that have those capabilities.
So then you end up with a situation that nobody’s prepared internally, the long-term CEO leaves, and everybody says, oh crap, what do we do now? And hence somebody comes in from the outside. It could be the best thing ever and it certainly could not be. And I know you roll the dice with an internal candidate. One of the discussions that I had with our board was that if we all did our job and the credit union was performing well, then you had good continuity. You didn’t have to change of direction. You didn’t have strategy creep because you have somebody who’s worked in the system and worked closely with me. And while we didn’t have group think, we certainly did think a lot alike.
So how do you prepare them? You’ve seen credit unions that didn’t prepare their senior staff. How do you prepare them just in case?
So honestly that falls largely on the seat and it’s fine. Okay. Or in those cases where nobody does anything about it, what happens is the board goes out and hires a search firm and search firms have their place. I think there’s some awfully good ones out there. I’m not condemning them at all, but I think they should be a part of the process if you do it right. I don’t think they should drive the process. If the cupboard is bare, they just have to go out in the marketplace and roll the dice and see what happens. So again, that’s my opinion, but that is where the board ends up, abdicating the responsibility at the last minute to go to search firms like, oh my God, help us. We need somebody. So here’s what I did. I started my internal process several years before my anticipated retirement.
I knew what the date was. I expanded roles for a couple of key senior people and meant to test their capabilities; certainly as your organization grows, you’ve got to distribute more and more responsibility anyway. But ultimately there was a point you ideally would like to have more than one person that you were considering to have the potential; that’s the best of all worlds. And then you want to see who rises to the top. Right? We employed standardized assessments. We had used them throughout, but we did some different things to assess. Because if your role is a VP, for example, that skill set is a little bit different than that of a CEO, right?
You want to assess their abilities for the CEO role. The other thing we did was start a development plan that was five years in length with regular follow up. And that the plan was really designed to fill gaps in their experience. Okay. Both internally, as well as increase their exposure to external organizations or leadership opportunities, whether it be in credit union organizations or the community, that being such a big part of the CEO’s job. So I wouldn’t call it extremely strategic, but we just laid out a roadmap. And part of it was based on my experience, what I had seen or things that I wish I had done a little differently, whether it be a civic club, mine was like, don’t join the one that I was the president of. You need to go join enough and you need to join one that has more members and a bit more influence than the one I had been at.
What kind of roles could they fill in organizations in credit union land, right? Where could they get involved? Would it be the corporate? Would it be the credit union foundation? Would it be the league board? Would it be committees, those kinds of things. So all in the effort to get them used to that, CEOs from my perspective are very dependent upon their network out there, right? We are a business where colleagues collaborate. The more folks that you can pick up the phone, you know him, you know as the CEO, it never hurts to pick up the phone and say, Hey, I’m working on something. Give me your thoughts on it. Have you tried this? What worked well? What didn’t and you got to get to know people for them to share that some won’t, some just are not going to talk about their failures, but your closest friends will tell you those things that they would have certainly done differently.
So that was all part of that process.
Restating what I think I heard to make sure that listeners are getting it because what I heard is when you’re trying to grow your senior VPs into potential CEOs and kind of let them self-select with their skill set, you give them the opportunity to expand their roles both internally, but as you do anyways, as a credit union scales, and then you plug them into industry leadership roles, roles in the community, community leadership roles, and then you’re sort of evaluating their ability to execute strategically in those roles. Is that how it works?
Yes. Very much. You hit it very succinctly there.
So that leads to what I’ll say is a key point. You’ve got to align your organization and the organizational chart for the upcoming transition. Do it well before you retire; obviously you don’t wait until that last minute. And one other very key thing. When you identify those key people, you need to lock them down.
Let’s back up to those titles. You’re going to identify different titles to tell the organization who the heir apparent is. Is that what you’re saying?
Yes, that was part of it. There were promotions involved to say, these folks are taking on more responsibility and oh, by the way, they are the future of this credit union. And obviously anybody who looked at me with all this gray hair said, you know, he’s not going to be around that long. So who is the future? Because you want to reassure everybody, every stakeholder, that the organization is in good hands. So yes, that was all part of it.
Can you give me an example from one title to what other title?
In our case, it was from VP to senior VP, and then I gave him a C title. So they might’ve been CFO, COO. So I created those and every credit union does it differently. Ultimately, I will tell you that this was my next step when the front runner, who became my successor, emerged as the front runner, at least in my eyes. I couldn’t speak for the board; they were not going to let me select my successor. They were very clear about that. We want your advice on the process, but we do not want you involved in making this selection, which is fine. And for me, I was okay with that. When I had one candidate that emerged as best suited for the job, I promoted him to the EVP.
Now this took place three years before my retirement, the newer in vogue for that is the heir apparent is named the president. So you then have a CEO and a president. I talked to my board about that. They found that too confusing. They didn’t want to have that structure. They’re like, nah, we have one president and CEO. So I said, okay, I’ll make him executive vice president over the entire organization, which sends a clear message for everybody concerned that he is in a position to earn the CEO job. That was the next step that I made. It was progressive. Five years out, I made some title changes to senior VP, and there’s no magic in the timing of this and role expansion. So all of this worked into the plan. And then secondly, the heir apparent in my mind became the EVP.
So you expand the responsibilities, plust them into the community. You watch that behavior looking toward strategic leadership. Then you decide on who your lead candidate is. And then you change the title to clearly indicate that’s the succession plan. So the next step I imagine is making sure that they stick around, right, Steve?
Absolutely a key element of you doing all this work and you’re developing people. Well, other credit unions are going to notice, and of course your own people are going to realize how marketable they are. So then all of a sudden you have to make sure that those people stick around to make your plan work well. We did with the board support and I’m thankful the board agreed to this, but we then said, these are key people. We need to offer executive benefits, like a 457 F plan or perhaps a split-dollar plan to retain them, lock them in through the point of my retirement.
Yeah. I’ve heard other CEOs suggest that the vesting of the 457F or the collateral assignment isn’t for a couple of years after the former CEOs retirement. So they sort of stagger those vesting dates. What are your thoughts about that?
I’ve seen that as well. If it’s the right person, I don’t think it matters because quite honestly, most of them would go in and renegotiate all that.
So then perhaps the F plan is still out there, but then they agree on a collateral assigned, split-dollar.
You’re gonna need to up the benefits to the CEO level. And I see it in my financial planning work. There’s no way a senior VP can be promoted as CEO and get the salary increase and then be able to save a reasonable percentage of their income because they’re capped out from the ERISA regulations.
So the only way they can close that gap is with the help of the credit union and some kind of executive management structure.
Right. Yeah. Regardless of how it’s structured. And I understand making the cliff vesting schedule as long as it retains them, that’s all that matters.
So you’re going to have some kind of split-dollar plan. That’s going to keep them in the role. Now, you had a story about when it didn’t work out? Can you tell us a little bit about what you saw?
Not to name names, but I know of a credit union that spent a lot of time and effort trying to prepare candidates and honestly, their top candidate was near when the current CEO was getting ready to retire, their best candidate got picked off by somebody else and left the organization so their plan fell apart.
So had they done the other step that you just mentioned. Had they defended the role?
I can’t say that definitively. I don’t know. And if they had an executive benefit, it obviously was not structured in the way that retained them. I know there’s a lot more dynamics. It’s not just money. I mean, somebody else can come in and offer a similar or better benefit.
They can always buy it out. You can have a great collateral assignment plan and someone can put out a better plan. You need to have something that is the takeaway. Well, the takeaway is you need to find the person, train the person, select the person, get the title, and then essentially ensure against them leaving with a defense of economics, a golden handcuffs-style strategy.
That’s excellent guidance for our listeners. So when you look back and think about the key steps that you took, or the key steps that you saw, or somebody else took that you wish you had, what do you go back and say, Hey, current CEOs, here’s some things to think about beyond what we’ve already covered?
I think that gets to the next point. I began with the board’s knowledge and support. I began to step back in board meetings and give my heir apparent, the EVP, the opportunity to present initiatives, field the board’s questions and objections, and function essentially as they would as the CEO. So it’s an odd situation after you’ve done it for 25 plus years to sit back and to allow that to happen. But that’s the growth component that needed to occur. The other thing that the current chairman and I decided that the heir apparent EVP would lead our planning session a couple of years before I retired. And in fact, he and the incoming chair were the ones that ran the sessions, while the current chair and I were merely participants.
I think that timeline is a really big deal, Steve. So two years before you retired, the EVP and the incoming chair ran the planks.
Yeah. Pretty recent experience. It’s a test. And the other thing being by it, because largely it was not the current chairman’s plan. And we were very inclusive. We tried to make sure there was consensus. The mantra was, the board speaks with one voice and they always believed in that. And I credit them for doing that. But you also know that those who are leading it’s more of their plan than it is those who are just merely participants. The other thing I did came up with the idea to write a white paper on a number of strategic topics going into strategic planning and the EVP and I took on that task. It ended up taking on a life of its own. It was 70 plus pages. By the time we got finished, it was a book. And when we got in session, you knew who read it in terms of the board.
And you knew who had only skimmed it. But the point was to use his strategic muscle as an exercise; it was a great test. He did extremely well with it, and it helped the board see his ability to think strategically. And it also set the planning session up very well because it gave us a lot of meat to dive into.
Steve, talk to me more about the board’s involvement in the succession planning process.
So our board formed a little over two years in advance of my retirement. They formed a CEO succession planning committee of the board. And I created a folder where I provided them every article I could find from credit union land, as well as beyond credit unions and banks on CEO succession planning. I also gave them a couple of sample timelines with the processes, the steps that I had read and seen, and some of them were from what I had witnessed at some other credit unions. I gave that to them to consider as a template for them to work through.
How far in advance do you do that? Is that five years out, three years out?
I started a little over two years before. In retrospect, I should have started sooner because I’m going to tell you, it’s a rare credit union board that acts swiftly. I would have started at least three years out, at least three years before planned retirement. They started this process with great vigor, but like most volunteer boards, they have lives, they have jobs or they’re retired and enjoying their retirement and to get them to move and tackle some of these things which are not easy. It took a lot of regular prodding. And again, I had a good board, so I can’t condemn them as a subpar board; they were very good board, but expect processes and the board to take longer than anticipated. One of the other things regarding board involvement, I got them a couple of years in advance.
I asked them to do a survey, just a very simple survey to rate the executive vice president’s readiness on a percentage basis, readiness, to be the CEO at that moment. And if they gave him a score of 80%, for example, what is missing? I had them to articulate what they thought was missing and the clear thing. In some cases, they don’t have the experience, but we know that. That’s a given. But there may be other things that they perceive. Then I shared those with the EVP so that he knew what in the eyes of the board, what those gaps may be. So it was done for them to acknowledge, because honestly they rated him and that’s why he ultimately got the job.They rated him very high.
That could have been dangerous if they came back and said, well they’re 30% ready t at this moment, well then you have that discussion. And I was prepared to have that discussion about what are the gaps from your perspective? I didn’t share my cards, I didn’t reveal anything.
You didn’t Share your opinion. You said, what is your opinion?
What is yours? And then I came back and said, okay, here’s your rating. . Here’s mine.
That’s a great idea. First time I’ve heard that idea. That’s a great idea. Have your board rate the current EVP on their readiness to be CEO and then identify the gap between their current skill set and what they need and work to close that gap. Great idea.
And you could do it if you had two candidates that were kind of neck and neck. Because whoever emerges is going to work for the board.
So you want to make sure the board is comfortable as well. The other thing, like I said, there were a few bumps in the process and any good leader will tell you, you make a plan, but you better expect something to come up. Right? I mean, you got to understand that our board was insistent upon doing a national search. They felt like it was their fiduciary responsibility to the 60,000 plus members. We had to put this job out and search nationally; it’s their right, their responsibility. So I gave them the names of several search firms that our SVP of HR worked with. Basically developed an RFP to send out to the search firms. And here was the interesting thing. One, It took so long for them to do that. That was only a year before my planned retirement.
Well, there’s no way they could have done a search effectively, negotiated with a single candidate and had them in place before my retirement; that would not have happened. There’s no way or it would have been a flawed process.
So if they’re going to do that, when do they need to start? Is that three years out?
I think that’s 18 months to two years out?
They’d have to talk to the search firm and they’d have to really figure out themselves what their commitment level is, how quickly they want to manage that process. When you get in the midst of that, it’s not ideal to string that thing out. You need to work through it systematically and regularly, right? And if those meetings do not go well, we’ll meet again next month. Well, you may lose a good candidate. And in the interim while you’re twiddling your thumbs, especially with the way the market is for CEOs now.
Yes, here’s one of the other observations about boards. We want to talk about that. And I understand their thoughts in that regard. Once they found out a price tag on that, they got sticker shock and said, oh my goodness, it’s the cost of doing business. But one of them on the board said, well, maybe we have a really great candidate in-house. Maybe there are other ways that we can show that we’ve done our job. And that was one of the last things they did. They abandoned that national search. But through some advice we hired C Myers, which works with credit unions in a lot of capacities. We hired them to help evaluate the EVPs readiness and fit for the job. So they basically coached the board through a process to do these things. And frankly, C Myers is one of the few firms that I would have felt comfortable with.
So NCUA came to the credit unions and said, you have to have a succession plan, particularly for your CEO. And it needs to be an organizational succession plan, but okay. They talked about that, but then who’s out there. And quite honestly, there’s a lot of opportunity to help credit unions to do this and credit your boards. So our board backed up and had C Myers go through that, put my successor through the process. And I knew he would fare very well.
That’s an interesting alternative to a national search. I will talk to them and see if that might be an appropriate subject to dig in a little bit more on future podcasts.
In the workplace, we’re in a war for talent and the credit union industry as a whole has a lot of work to be done to win that war.I think it’s improved and the larger credit unions get, I think their ability to compete is certainly better, but you’ve got to have a good process from starting with your board, through your CEO, to do this kind of planning, to make these kinds of commitments, to fund executive retention plans and all those things. If you’re going to win this war for talent, because organizations with the best talent and the best leadership always win. There’s no doubt about it. I simply hope my perspective will help others. I wish good luck to those that take on the task head on, however they choose to approach it. I probably need to wish even better luck to those that don’t take this thing head on because their credit union is probably going to need it. They may roll the dice and hire the best CEO they could possibly find, but you never know what you’re going to get.
And life has a habit of surprising you, right? I mean, you might be a CEO that was planning to stay in that position for a decade or more, and you have a health concern then that happens to you or your spouse or other family members. And you’ve got to make a change and then this whole process can be accelerated.
excellent, Steve. Well, thank you for taking the time. One of the beautiful things about credit unions is that it is an industry of people helping people, each organization helping the other. And I hope that your wisdom can help other members of the industry to be more successful.
Well, I hope so. I will be glad to talk individually with anybody that wants a bit more information. I’m happy to share.
That’s all the insider credit union knowledge we have for this episode. Are you enjoying the conversation? Be sure to subscribe and share your thoughts with other credit union leaders by leaving us a review. See you next time on “C.U. on the Show.”
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