John Bissell wasn’t always a finance guy.
When he was hired in 2003 as vice president of Federal Credit Union Greylock, he had extensive experience in marketing and public relations and was hired to lead marketing, community outreach and HR. But he certainly didn’t have the training and expertise in accounting, investing, reading balance sheets, managing P&L, or the many other skills needed to run a large, complex financial institution.
Twelve years later, in 2015, John Bissell became CEO, and since then has helped build the institution to over 90,000 members and over $ 1.4 billion in assets.
How did he do it?
Yes, Bissell took some accounting classes along the way and then took the plunge and earned an MBA, while working full time. Yet he ultimately attributes his success to a much more fundamental trait: curiosity.
“Always be curious” Bissell said in a recent interview. Ask a lot of questions. I wanted to know, “What’s the system behind the system?” What’s under the hood? “I needed to know a bit about how the engine works:” What? what matters most? “If we are able to develop more auto loans,” for example, “how will that help the balance sheet?” I had a lot to learn. “
“I have always had the great privilege of working with great teams at Greylock,” said Bissell. “I remember one person who was our CFO, and it was typical that he and I were there on a Saturday morning. It was calm. And I was just going to ask questions: the “what and” the why of the balance sheet and the income statement, questions about investments. For some reason, I wasn’t afraid to ask the stupid questions. It might be embarrassing for someone else to ask, but that’s just my nature. And he would patiently guide me through any questions I had.
This intense curiosity and willingness to ask questions does not surprise those who know Bissell. He says this basic trait is also essential to his ability to cultivate trusting relationships with all kinds of people. He is really curious about others, their expertise and their experiences. This has made him a better leader of the people and of the business, as well as a better citizen of the community served by Greylock Federal.
“I ask everyone questions. It doesn’t matter what their title is, ”Bissell says. “I get great advice from our cashiers, our loan officers, every day. Some of the most in-depth ideas I have on how our business is really going to come from these frontline people. “
Bissell’s curiosity helps him make authentic connections with others, as he views every interaction as an opportunity, not only to learn, but also to empathize and listen.
“You have to think about” who you communicate with “on a deep level,” says Bissell. “If I’m just talking from inside my own head, then the message will fall flat. “What do they care about? “What are our shared care? “
If Bissell sounds particularly warm and hazy for a CEO running a billion-dollar financial institution, there are two things you need to know.
First, Bissell has always been a service and mission oriented person: “My parents have always volunteered, constantly looking for ways to strengthen the community. This is how I was brought up. Bissell is also an Eagle Scout! And Greylock serves the western Massachusetts community where Bissell was born and raised and where his extended family still resides.
Second, for Greylock, like all credit unions, “the mission is everything,” Bissell insists, “we have to earn our nonprofit designation every day.” This is the difference between a credit union and a bank.
“Our financial system, in general, was designed to be proprietary. The reason the banking system was not performing well in the 1930s was that it was designed to provide credit to people who already had money, ”Bissell explained. “In our case, financial inclusion means that we are a way for people to participate fully in the economy, to participate fully in the financial system. Whatever their income level, whatever their credit score, we find a way to serve them.
Lately, Bissell’s main focus has been on building relationships with black and brown communities in his area. After generations of mistreatment and mistrust of the American financial system, Bissell knows that investing in these relationships is a long-term project.
“I’m happy to say that there is a strong network of black leaders who have trusted me, who have mentored me. And we’re in a much better place now than we were, ”Bissell said. “But I will never be done investing in this process with them and earning their trust.”
Still, there are tangible successes Bissell can refer to. A recent renovation in 2019 converted half of one of Greylock’s branches into a community empowerment center, where they provide financial education and coaching. Educational opportunities and associated awareness have meant that this particular branch is now developing for the first time in decades.
But the growth of the business, for Bissell, is just additional. What matters most to him is meeting the mission and approaching this mission with a sense of service.
“When I became CEO of this 90,000-strong community credit union, what struck me was that I was part of it. I have 90,000 bosses as a nonprofit financial cooperative, ”Bissell explained. “I got a call last night from someone who is irritated by a direct mail he received. It wasn’t from us, but it had our name on it. He calls me at 6:30 p.m. I’ll take that call.