First West Credit Union CEO places focus on leadership brand

Oct 29, 2013
Launi Skinner 2

Launi Skinner, CEO of First West Credit Union, spoke with CKNW host Bill Good about the value of mentorship opportunities and the importance she still places on learning opportunities.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, the need for strong leadership to steer organizations through troubled waters was never greater. Realizing this, Launi Skinner, CEO of one of Canada’s largest credit unions, First West Credit Union, made a conscious decision to develop her own leadership strategy – what she refers to as her “brand of leadership”.

Skinner discussed this strategy and more with Bill Good on “The Chief Executives”, as part of an ongoing partnership between the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University and prominent Vancouver radio station CKNW News Talk 980 to bring insight from BC’s top business leaders to the Segal Graduate School.

After deciding to leave her position as President of Starbucks USA after fifteen years with the organization, Skinner was looking for a new challenge. She spent 18 months as CEO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK, before arriving at First West Credit Union, where she has since overseen a period of change under her leadership that resulted in a growth in net interest income of 37.3 percent in her first year alone.

“I am quite humbled by my success, but you can only get that by having great people surround you,” she said. “I am very privileged to have had such great people help me on my journey.”

With such a track record of success, Skinner could be forgiven for resting on her laurels. However, even at this stage in her career she still actively seeks out learning opportunities. Just last year, she was part of the ninth cohort in SFU Executive Education’s Directors Education Program, spending three days every quarter attending lectures at the Segal Graduate School.

Indeed, Skinner revealed that she places great stock in mentorship opportunities. Perhaps surprisingly, however, it is not just the role of mentor that she takes on, as she has for the past two years been in a formal mentorship relationship where she is the mentee.

“Even at this level you need someone to bounce ideas off,” said Skinner. “I meet my mentor for breakfast formally every six weeks and he makes sure I keep my standards high. Sometimes when you are busy you can find yourself making compromises. A mentor keeps you true to what you want to be, and I think mentorship, whether you are a student or the mentor yourself, is the most important thing in business.”

After joining First West Credit Union in 2010, Skinner has spent her entire tenure in the financial industry working in the wake of the financial crisis, exposing her to unprecedented events such as interest rates never rising beyond three percent throughout that entire period. It is situations such as this that have required her to adopt innovative methods in her approach.

“The financial industry, for the first time ever, is being interrupted by technology,” she explained. “People are stopping coming into branches and using their mobiles and computers to bank instead. They are telling us how, when, and where they want to bank. Our ability to keep up with that change of pace is fundamentally having an impact on the way we do business.”

Skinner places great stock in surrounding herself with the right people in order to succeed, with innovation, communication, and collaboration all qualities she looks for in potential employees. She is not averse to returning to her old employer when looking for entry-level positions, and recognizes that in this competitive job market, many Starbucks employees are highly educated and in possession of the skills she desires.

She explained, however, that a solid business strategy alone will not guarantee success.

“You can have the best strategy in the world, but culture will kill strategy,” she said. “We are comfortable sharing our strategy with anyone, because simply knowing the strategy does not mean you will be able to execute it well. We build out culture through top succession planning, and always look for ways to build talent and help them grow.”

Despite her admirable success in business, when pressed as to how she balances such a high-pressured job with her personal life, Skinner’s response indicated that she has not yet found the balance for which she aims. “I came to terms with the fact that this is one thing I wouldn’t be perfect at,” she said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “You can only be the best you can be at that moment – just don’t beat yourself up about it.”

The next CEO to be interviewed in the Chief Executives will be Charles Jeanne, President & CEO of Goldcorp.

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