35 years ago today I walked into Pacific NW Federal Credit Union in Portland, Oregon wearing a white Ralph Lauren Polo shirt (collar flipped up, it was 1980), a blue and white striped cotton pencil skirt with big white buttons down the right side, white pumps and panty hose. For the previous four years I wore a pleated plaid skirt, white blouse, knee highs and penny loafers by day, and some nights I dressed as a serving wench. 35 years ago today I began my lifelong career and love of credit unions, and I got to start wearing real clothes.
Why do I remember exactly what I wore on that first day? Because it was a bad choice. My best friend made me the skirt and I’d never worn it before. It looked fabulous, but to use the restroom you had to unbutton most of it because it was tight. On my first day working at a credit union I dropped the back of my skirt in the toilet. And because it was100% cotton and light blue…..oh my god could you see that I had had an “accident.” I panicked. I was wringing out the water over the sink and contemplating my next move. There was a back door. I could just leave and never come back. Or, I could just laugh about it, fess up, and move on.
This is the first lesson I learned in credit unions.
Lesson #1: Shit happens. Deal with it, learn from it and move on.
When I was the VP Marketing at First Tech my team decided to build the hippest, coolest, tech savvy website. It was 1997 and we put up a black background, had Macromedia Flash technology greet you on the homepage, sassy copywriting. I was so proud. The day we launched we found out two truths. First, black backgrounds on websites at that time were pretty much reserved for porn sights and number two home banking should have been called “office banking.” Our tech savvy members were not allowed to download the flash player on their office computers effectively locking all members out of their accounts. We made the “bitch site” at Intel. Their intranet conversation tool. People called us idiots. Within hours our IT department took down our shiny new baby and put up the old turd. I was devastated. But my boss and mentor Tom Sargent came into my office, could see how upset I was and just said, “You know, sometimes you make a mistake. I don’t trust people who never make mistakes because they are not doing anything worthwhile. As long as you learn from this, you’ll do just great.”
Lesson #2: Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.
It was 1991 and I was fortunate enough to work for Sarah Canepa Bang at the Oregon Credit Union League. I was still in my twenties and took some fashion chances. One day I was in the mailroom wearing these fluorescent green flowered pants from the Gap. You could see them from space. With sandals. Sarah came up to me and said, “You know Denise, you look darling in those pants, but I know you and you want to eventually be in a management position. My advice to you is to dress for the job you WANT, not the one you have.” I’ve passed that one along to many youngsters throughout the years.
Lesson #3: Never ever burn a bridge.
I’ve always said, “It’s all about the network.” Credit unions are one big tight family – not unlike the Mafia. If you do right by them they will take care of you. You cross the family? You are dead to them (insert spitting on the ground noise). My very first job I ended up “firing my boss.” Some people would call it quitting and walking out. But no, I was a smarty pants and said this “If you were unsatisfied with my performance you would fire me, well I’m unsatisfied with your performance as my supervisor and so I fire you. This is my last day.” Thankfully for me my supervisor actually got a kick out of my spunk (stupidness) and there were no long term consequences. Meaning it never bit me back. But, there is never a reason to burn a bridge. I regretted doing that immediately and I have always tried to take the high road in my career. Sometimes you’re not a good fit in a position, doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Go find your people and thrive.
Lesson #4: Question everything.
When I started my consulting business my logo was a flying pig and my tagline was “Question everything.” I love new employees because they do this without even giving it much thought. They are learning how you do things and have to ask “Why?” And many of us answer “Because we’ve always done it that way.” When I hear that I keep investigating. Nine times out of ten in my career if I heard that lame answer, it is something really stupid, obsolete, antiquated, unnecessary that is going on. So, please, question everything. And stop doing what doesn't work.
Lesson #5: Read
My Catholic education taught me how to learn. It was a college prep school and I paid attention. But I didn't go to college. I quickly learned that I loved credit unions and decided to make it my career and created my own kind of learning. I took every class that was offered to me. I have read over 75 books on marketing, innovation, brand, strategy and communication. That I wrote two books myself! I recommended a book to a credit union CEO once and his response has stayed with me all these years. He said, "I have a degree in business, I don't need to read books anymore." Wow, so you have learned it all.....two years later he was fired.