Leading the Big CU that Stayed Small

A Q&A with Wegner Award-winner Gary Oakland.

January 21, 2014
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In recognition of his visionary approach to leadership and extraordinary commitment to the credit union movement, the National Credit Union Foundation is presenting Gary Oakland, a 2014 Herb Wegner Memorial Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Oakland is the retired president/CEO of $11.7 billion asset BECU in Seattle, Wash.

Credit Union Magazine recently chatted with Oakland about the award and his career.

What does this award mean to you?

I'm very honored by the award. It means, to me, that many of my peers—people I have learned so much from over the years—think I did some good things.

What are you most proud of in your credit union career?

I'm not so much proud of any one project but that BECU continued to focus on the member and the movement even as that focus allowed us to grow and serve more members.

I've always said that we're just a small credit union that happens to have a lot of members.

What was the most challenging issue you had to deal with during your CU career?

Early in my career, I would say economic cycles, especially big layoffs at Boeing when our members were virtually all Boeing employees.

Overall, I think the biggest challenge was how to introduce change appropriately—not too slow, not too fast and in a way the members and employees could understand and accept.

What’s your best leadership idea/advice?

Think differently. 

Don't let others define who we are as a movement. Stay vital to members and they will come. Then credit unions will be able to help even more consumers. 

We can continue to grow by being vital to our members.

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Great article! Unfortunately, most employees don’t feel valued or appreciated by their supervisors or employers. In fact, research has shown that the predominant reason team members quit their jobs is because they don’t feel valued. This is in spite of the fact that employee recognition programs have proliferated in the workplace – over 90% of all organizations in the U.S. has some form of employee recognition activities in place. But most employee recognition programs are viewed with skepticism and cynicism – because they aren’t viewed as being genuine in their communication of appreciation. Getting the “employee of the month” award, receiving a certificate of recognition, or a “Way to go, team!” email just don’t get the job done. How do you communicate authentic appreciation? We have found people have different ways that they want to be shown appreciation, and if you don’t communicate in the language of appreciation important to them, you essentially “miss the mark”. Additionally, employees need to receive recognition more than once a year at their performance review. Otherwise, they view the praise as “going through the motions”. A third component of authentic appreciation is that the communication has to be about them personally – not the department, not their group, but something they did. Finally, they have to believe that you mean what you say. How you treat them has to match the words you use. If you are not sure how your team members want to be shown appreciation, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory ( will identify the language of appreciation and specific actions preferred by each employee. You then can create a group profile for your team, so everyone knows how to encourage one another. Remember, employees want to know that they are valued for what they contribute to the success of the organization. And communicating authentic appreciation in the ways they desire it can make the difference between keeping your quality team members or having a negative work environment that everyone wants to leave. Paul White, Ph.D., is the co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman.

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