Carrie Birkhofer is President and CEO of Bay Federal Credit Union, a non profit financial cooperative with 225 employees. She’s been the CEO there for 25 years and under her leadership the credit union has grown from $70 million to $1.4 billion in assets.
This year has brought on a lot of challenges for leaders in every industry.
Some leaders have struggled and even failed. Others have really embraced change in order to help their people get through these tough times.
One CEO that has really used the current challenges to make her organization even better is Carrie Birkhofer, President and CEO of Bay Federal Credit Union. Even before the pandemic she knew the importance of putting people first.Carrie was one of the CEOs I interviewed for my book, The Future Leader and during the interview she said the following, “I meet employees the first hour on the first day they start at the Credit Union. New employees are welcomed as a group and when new hires start together, I’m there. I greet them, I welcome them, and I answer any questions they may have. All new employees, regardless of their position are seen, heard, respected, and listened to by the leader and they know that I’m there to serve them, not the other way around.”
This is a great example of what leaders should be every single day, but especially now as we all go through the historic crazy times 2020 has brought. Leaders should serve their people, their people should not be there just to serve them.
What does servant leadership look like
What does it look like to serve your employees? Carrie has some great real life examples of what it looks like. First of all, Carrie makes sure she meets new employees on their first day at work.
In good times, pre-COVID that meant four or five current employees and Carrie getting together in person with the new employees. The current employees would share who they are, what their path has been at Bay Federal, and something interesting that they want to share. Then they would have the new employees do the same thing, except they would share their paths getting to Bay Federal.
And then Carrie would go last, because she doesn’t want to influence the process. Most people don’t even know who she is until she shares. She also gives the new employees a chance to ask any questions they want. But because she realizes they may be too nervous to think of anything, Carrie and two executive vice presidents take that same group out for lunch so they can ask their questions once they are more comfortable.
Obviously this process looks a bit different with COVID. But this is still a priority for Carrie, so the initial meeting is done either via Zoom or in a large room where everyone is socially distanced. And instead of physically taking the group out to lunch she orders everyone lunch from Door Dash and they get to eat at their home while on a Zoom with Carrie and her team.
She also started writing a Friday morning email to all employees when things got crazy earlier this year. She wanted to make sure everyone was up to date and had all the information they needed. She got such great feedback from it, that she continues it to this day. And even though she says it is a lot of work on her part, it is worth it because it has allowed her to be even more connected with her team.
This year has also brought a lot of attention to racial inequalities. Carrie wanted to make sure she addressed this in the right way. So she called up all of the employees in the company who identify as black and she checked in on them. She asked how they were doing, she asked what she could do to help, and she made herself available to them. She genuinely cares about her people and she wants to make sure that every single one of them is heard and respected.
The day to day of a CEO before and during COVID
As a CEO Carrie’s day to day looks a little different now. Pre-COVID Carrie would be out of the office a lot more. She attended community events, went out to build business relationships, took part in conferences. But now she is primarily working from home. And she has been spending a lot more time communicating with her employees, the board of directors, and the senior leadership team.
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Nowadays she wakes up quite early with her new puppy. She starts her day off by going for a walk to the Monterey Bay where she does a gratitude mantra. This has really helped her to stay grounded during all of the craziness of 2020. During her walk when she gets to a certain spot she takes time to ask for wisdom and guidance from family members who have passed on. She says a prayer of thanks. She gets perspective and reflects. And she takes in the view of nature around her. She does this every single day without fail, rain or shine.
Then when she gets back she has some coffee and goes into her office (which right now is in her bedroom). She takes a look at her calendar to see what her day looks like, every day is very different, but generally she has Zoom meetings and activities from 8:30am to 4:30pm. And she ends her day with the same walk she does in the morning.
She is very involved in her Rotary Club, she has the new employee orientations on the first Monday of every month, she meets daily with her executive assistant, and daily with her two vice presidents. She also meets twice a week with her senior leadership team.
And while the amount of communication needed these days can be exhausting, she enjoys feeling more connected to her team now than ever before.
Making the shift at first seemed daunting but as Carrie shares, “Well, on March 13, the governor kinda hinted that we were shutting down and on March 17 everyone went home. And we adapted that day, it took about a week for the technology team to get 100 employees situated at home and I know companies much larger than us did as well. It was kind of a miracle in the business world, that we all did it. But it happened really quickly. It happened overnight. And if you had told me six months ago that this is something that we will have to do, and this is how we’re going to operate, and you’re gonna do it in less than a week, my team would have laughed at me. But we did it. And we just, I think it shows the power of having a clear mandate. That’s an important thing. If you have clear crystal clear direction, I think teams can do amazing work. And it also shows me the power of a team that is very synergized and works collaboratively together.”
Keeping culture alive while working remotely
Bay Federal has a lot of unique activities in place to keep the company culture alive when so many team members are working from home. One tradition they have had for a long time is around Halloween. Before the pandemic they had every department pick a theme and the employees decorated their area over the top with props and everything. Then the senior leadership team would go around to every location throughout the day. It was a very big production.
But knowing this year they had to do it a bit differently they made the whole week of Halloween spirit week where everyone could dress up for a different theme every day whether they were physically in the office or working from home. Everyone got to upload a picture of themselves in their costume and prizes were given out to the best ones.
Carrie also makes sure to start each meeting with a different fun question, like what is your favorite rock band? What is your favorite meal that you are Door Dashing right now? This practice really helps with Zoom meetings so that they don’t just jump into things without doing something fun first. Carrie has also used this question time to ask people what their favorite cake is, and she keeps track of all the responses so she can send people their favorite cake on their birthday.
The leadership team was able to have a socially distanced barbeque where they got to play trivia games, good food, and they could reconnect since they hadn’t been together in quite a long time.
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The importance of putting people first has been talked about for many years. But this year has really shown us that leaders actually need to be human, they have to get to know their people, and they have to put people first in order to thrive and grow. Any leader who doesn’t do this will get left behind.
Carrie’s advice for future female leaders
We have a long way to go to bring equality to leadership. We need more women leaders. Carrie has been a CEO for 25 years so she knows the challenges and the benefits of being a female leader.
Her advice to any women who want to be leaders is, “Show up. When you’re in the office, when you have an opportunity to be seen and heard, show up with confidence, and professionalism. Be prepared. You know, don’t apologize. Be bold. And listen and ask others what their opinions are, but don’t be afraid to share your own. And I think the world is ready for you. There’s a lot of acceptance being recognized for diversity. And so it’s finding that right audience that’s listening to you. Don’t carry a chip on your shoulder, be inquisitive, be curious. Be kind. And at the same time be bold.”
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