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Three Unexpected Leadership Lessons I Learned During My 20 Years As a CEO

Twenty years ago, when my father and I launched a fledgling marketing agency, I had no idea it would lead me to the credit union community, to the broader cooperative economy, or to a certification in marriage counseling.

If I’m going to be perfectly honest, back then I was thinking, “I bet I can work at this for a few months and then log in for 10 hours a week from the back of a camel in the Sahara desert and make a comfortable living.”

OK, it hasn’t actually turned out that way at all. But camels or no camels, I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s through this work that I’ve had the great privilege of challenging status-quo business paradigms and creating a mission-driven and values-aligned company, where both clients and team members want to stick around.

There is no shortage of cheesy leadership memes and nuggets of wisdom floating around the internet, but at the end of the day, the three most important lessons I’ve learned weren’t necessarily lessons I expected to learn. And while they apply across industries, they are particularly relevant to credit union leaders, who are already at the forefront of conversations around cooperative principles, the importance of empathy, and business as a force for good.


1. Keep pushing on the WHY, particularly when it comes to conventional “business wisdom”

As a leader, I’ve sometimes found myself caught between honoring and challenging the hard-won wisdom of mentors and business veterans. I’ve learned so much from those who came before me, and I’ve also learned how important it is to question so much of what we’ve come to accept as “truth” in the business world.

I often have to remind myself that most of our assumptions about what makes a successful company are rooted in a dominant culture that values competition, individualism, and rapid growth. One of the hardest, but most important, things a leader can do is to define their own set of core values and to recognize when they might conflict with the values that drive conventional business wisdom.

For instance, when I co-founded PixelSpoke in 2003, not once did a lawyer or adviser even mention the option of structuring the company as a worker-owned cooperative. While there are only around 620 worker cooperatives in the United States — including Equal Exchange and the 1,600-plus worker Cooperative Home Care Associates — I learned that it is a much more common business model in other parts of the world. In a single province in Italy, co-ops produce a third of its GDP. A global cooperative founded in Spain, Mondragon, has more than 80,000 workers and 14 billion dollars in revenue.

The more cooperatives that our team started to meet, the more we learned that for whatever reason — perhaps our shared myth of The Rugged Individual — the cooperative model is not discussed in the United States much at all. Even many credit union members don’t have a clear understanding of what it means to own a little piece of their credit union. Though cooperatives are mentioned as a standard option for ownership and operation of a company in many business schools in Europe, I have yet to speak to one U.S. MBA graduate whose education covered this model.

I won’t pretend that the decision to transition PixelSpoke from an LLC to an employee cooperative was an easy one. During the month leading to the conversion, I found myself in a state of agitation when talking to the attorneys about the final documents, especially when issues of taxes and protections came up. I once melodramatically thought to myself, “I’m signing my own death warrant!”

I am continually inspired by credit union leaders who lean into the cooperative principles, coupling them with their credit union’s core values to make bold decisions that might seem counterintuitive. Not every foray into uncharted territory results in resounding success, but when done with intention and driven by strong core values, it’s always a learning opportunity.

I’m happy to report that in the case of our co-op conversion, it was one of the best decisions I made during my 20-year tenure as a CEO and business owner. It has ultimately allowed me to step down as CEO with the confidence that our team’s 10 co-owners and 16 employees are heavily invested in the company’s success, share a deep understanding of our core values, and are equipped with the skills and strengths they need to continue moving the company forward.


2. The bottom line isn’t everything

Most business leaders look to the bottom line to guide the majority of their decisions, but there’s a huge problem with this single-track thinking—namely, that financial results fail to fully measure the impact of a business on society. As a result, a business can make money and destroy value in society.

Sometimes these impacts (“externalities” in nerd speak) are massive. Think of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the predatory lending practices that contributed to the 2008 financial meltdown, or the multitude of ways that social media has been used to spread disinformation, particularly during elections.

I don’t believe that our capitalist system is fatally flawed, but I do believe that it’s serving humanity poorly because companies are rewarded based on an incomplete picture. It’s like we business folks are driving a fogged up car and we have to make decisions based on only being able to see out of a small part of the front windshield.

It was my desire to make better informed decisions that led me to the B Corp community. As a certified B Corp, PixelSpoke answers to a triple bottom line — people, planet, and profit. In my opinion, the cooperative model paired with a trusted third-party certification like B Corp offers one of the strongest legal and financial frameworks for a durable commitment to consistently great work, socially responsible practices, and shared core values.

While credit unions are not eligible to become B Corps because of their not-for-profit status, this triple bottom line still applies (and they can still use the freely available assessment to measure their impact). The most effective credit union leaders I know are not laser focused on asset size and financial growth, but give equal weight to the environmental, social, and economic health of the communities they serve.


3. The best leaders lead with love

Does love have a place in business? Some might say no, but I heartily disagree.

We like to pretend that business isn’t “personal,” but behind every rational action, plan, and decision lie a collection of non-rational feelings that actually guide our behaviors. And I think love is the most important one. Why? Because love is a radical act. To love someone says you are willing to give generously and have the hard conversations that are necessary to keep building a relationship.

“Good business,” in my opinion, is about engaging from the heart, not just the head. But we all know love can be hard. It’s a lot messier than numbers on a balance sheet. So how do we build our “love skill set?” How do we meaningfully engage from the heart while navigating strategic plans and gross margins?

I’ve been so intrigued by these questions that I pursued a certification in marriage counseling to help me answer them. Here are the five “from the heart” skills I’ve brought from that training to PixelSpoke:

  1. Growing our emotional bank accounts with others. (Maybe this should be called the “emotional credit union account?” Sadly, we didn’t coin the term!) Just like a real deposit account, you need to deposit more than you withdraw to stay healthy. Marriage expert John Gottman asserts that when we appreciate and authentically connect with our team and clients, we’re making deposits. When we turn away, we’re making a withdrawal. Barbara Frederickson, professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, suggests aiming for at least a 3:1 ratio of deposits to withdrawals, because this is the magic tipping point above which teams and individual relationships naturally become more positive. Below this point, they spiral into more negativity.
  2. Taking time to listen and reflect. I like to think of this as Deep Listening, which revolves around listening for understanding rather than agreement. So often I find that when I see someone struggling, their most basic desire is just to be seen and heard fully by another person. I can offer more by staying in this space rather than jumping to solutions.
  3. Acknowledging emotions. Again, as much as we like to believe that we are rational creatures, particularly in a work context, the reality is that we bring our emotions to everything we do. Getting in touch with our own feelings and working to understand others’ feelings (instead of making assumptions) is key to a healthy team dynamic. I often consult this handy feelings list from the Center for Nonviolent Communication.
  4. Understanding needs. Needs and emotions are invariably tied up in one another, but figuring out what it is that we or other team members are needing, particularly in times of conflict, can help us work toward constructive next steps instead of getting caught in zero-sum positions. Once the need has been identified, options for alternate solutions begin to surface. Here is a helpful list of needs from the same folks.
  5. Making positive requests. This one is beautiful in its simplicity but often shockingly hard to do in practice. I want to work on asking for what it is that I do want, instead of focusing on what it is that I don’t It’s easy to say that you want someone to stop stressing you out. It’s difficult to ask if they would be willing to check in with you to see if it’s a good time for feedback before they deliver it. And it’s even harder to accept that they might say “no.” But in my experience, making demands does not lead us toward greater connection and stronger relationships.

If there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that I’ve screwed up multiple times throughout my tenure at PixelSpoke. That’s part of life. We often say or do things that are unskillful, dismissive, or inconsiderate. Without a healthy emotional bank account, and without the tools to meaningfully engage, we can cause suffering and damage that may have long-lasting implications for team morale.

Love doesn’t mean we do everything right. It just means that we’re committed to doing the hard work.


As for me, I’m looking forward to moving into an advisory role in 2024 where I will still be helping to guide the strategy of the company with our amazing leadership and board. I am so excited to welcome our former Chief Operations Officer, Katie Stone, as PixelSpoke’s new CEO and our former Chief Creative Officer, Dave Drouin, as President.

During their combined 23-year tenure at PixelSpoke, they have both already learned so much from the credit union, cooperative, and B Corp movements. I know they will draw heavily from our “Curiosity with a Purpose” core value in the coming years to lean into these leadership lessons and quite likely, learn new lessons of their own.


This article originally appeared on CUInsight.

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