International Women’s Day 2024: celebrating trailblazing women in the credit union sector

Happy international women's day 2024

It’s International Women’s Day, a day of global recognition of the achievements of women across various fields and to advocate for gender equality.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we have taken this opportunity to pose questions to Eileen Halligan, founding member and CEO of Central Credit Union, to understand the challenges she has faced in a ‘traditionally’ male-dominated industry and impact of modern changes to the sector over the past 35 years.

What inspired you to found the credit union, and what were your initial goals?

I come from an Irish-catholic matriarchal stock of strong and irrepressible women. As young adults, we were well used to Mum’s social conscience, sense of social injustice and grand schemes to change the world, or rather her grand schemes for her children to change the world on her behalf; our response tended to be a silent thought of “yes mum, manyana, manyana”.

However, one of her persistent ideas was that I start a credit union after reading, sometime in the 1960s, about the growth of credit unions in America. I was only a child then, and despite Mum’s belief that miracles can happen, realistically, I could do nothing about it. Still, in my mid-20s, I had an accident that left me more or less immobile for about three years. During this time, I thought I would find out about credit unions. I honestly thought that credit unions were nothing more than Tone Tines, that I could set one up for Mum, and that it would more or less take care of itself. Was I ever so wrong! The rest, as they say, is history.

As a founder member of the credit union, my inspiration, apart from being nagged by Mum, stemmed from a deep-seated belief in empowerment and community solidarity. Witnessing the struggles of individuals in accessing fair and just financial services and reading about credit unions ignited a fire within me that replicated Mum’s desire to establish a financial organisation that prioritised inclusivity and support. Our initial goals were simple yet profound – to provide accessible financial solutions, foster financial literacy, and cultivate a sense of belonging within our community.

As a pioneering woman in the financial sector, what challenges did you face when starting the credit union, and how did you overcome them?

Indeed, the financial sector, like many others, posed significant barriers for women at the time of founding the credit union. Establishing credibility and garnering trust were formidable challenges in the wider community. However, those hurdles were navigated through unwavering determination, resilience, and a commitment to excellence. By consistently demonstrating competence and a genuine dedication to our members’ welfare, I gradually earned our members’ and other stakeholders’ respect and confidence.

I also found that most of the members and volunteers in the credit union movement were, and remain, women as they tend to look after the family finances. In my early days in the credit union movement, I found that whilst many women put in long hours of dedication to their credit union, the men tended to have the titles or status of Chairperson, Treasurer or CEO. However, that is no longer the case; in Merseyside alone, four very dedicated and talented women are CEOs of their particular credit union, which is replicated across the country.

How has your leadership style evolved since you founded the credit union, and what key lessons have you learned about leading effectively?

My leadership style has evolved from a doer to a delegator. A “doer” leadership style typically means a very hands-on leader involved in the day-to-day tasks and often takes charge of executing projects and making decisions directly. They may be highly skilled and capable individuals who lead by example. But, realistically, I filled any gap that needed filling. If we needed a treasurer, I became one, a company secretary, a loan officer, a credit controller, and a teacher; I have done them all. When relying solely on volunteers, there are, perhaps, always gaps to fill. Now, however, we employ 31 staff in various capacities in addition to our volunteers. I am very proud that 8 of those staff came up through the volunteer root.

On the other hand, a “delegator” leadership style involves a leader who trusts their team members to take on responsibilities and make decisions independently. Instead of being directly involved in every task, the delegator empowers others to handle various aspects of the work. They focus more on setting goals and direction, providing guidance, preserving values and overseeing progress rather than executing tasks themselves.

So, when I say my leadership style has evolved from a doer to a delegator, it means I have transitioned from being heavily involved in the day-to-day operations and tasks to entrusting those tasks to team members and focusing more on guiding and empowering them to succeed. This shift reflects a recognition of the importance of leveraging the team’s strengths.

Instead of feeling I must take all the responsibility on my shoulders, I now emphasise collaboration, empowerment, and empathy. Over the years, I’ve learned that authentic leadership fosters ownership and accountability among team members while recognising and valuing their unique contributions. Effective communication, active listening, and adaptability have emerged as indispensable tools in leading our credit union through various challenges and opportunities.

Can you share a significant milestone or achievement of the credit union under your leadership that you are particularly proud of?

This is a difficult question to answer as I have been a “leader” from the credit union’s foundation to today, and I have always been so proud of what we have collectively achieved.

There have been numerous milestones that would take another essay to document, from six common bond expansions to purchasing two branches and a mobile office, the development of our memorial garden in honour of our deceased volunteers, the playground where we provide access to local nursery and primary school children, our involvement in financial education to school children via our partnership with LifeSavers, the awards we offer each year that honours and recognises kindness and resilience in children, the involvement of our older members in regular social events to prevent them becoming isolated and lonely.

That is without mentioning the impact we have had on the financial well-being of our members and the millions of pounds we have saved our community over the years by providing an alternative to high-interest lenders. One of the most significant milestones of our credit union is that by launching tailored financial products and educational initiatives, we’ve empowered countless individuals to achieve their financial goals and aspirations. Witnessing the tangible impact of our efforts on our members’ lives fills me with immense pride and reaffirms the importance of our mission.

However, three things make me fulfilled more than anything else:

  1. We have received several awards over the years for our customer service due to members voting for us and their continual profusive praise about the service they receive from us.
  2. The fact that we have had volunteers who have stayed with us for 35 years and staff who say it is the best place they have ever worked, both of which prove that we must be doing something right.
  3. Finally, over the years, I have received immense pleasure from nurturing colleagues and watching them develop into the competent and confident people they are today.

I will miss all this when I retire, but it will soon be time to hand over the reins to my successor so that person can flourish even further. Still, the credit union, my family, my friends, my raison d’etre, I have even chosen the plot for my tree in the memorial garden. They can’t get rid of me!

From your perspective, how has the credit union sector changed since you started, especially regarding women’s roles and opportunities within it?

The credit union sector has undoubtedly undergone substantial transformation, with increased recognition of the invaluable contributions of women. While women’s roles and opportunities within the industry have expanded, there’s still progress to be made in achieving true gender parity and inclusive leadership. Nevertheless, I’m optimistic about the trajectory and remain committed to advocating for greater representation and equal opportunities for women in the sector. Most of our staff and volunteers are women, and they do a brilliant job, as evidenced by our continued success.

What impact do you believe credit unions have on the financial well-being of communities, particularly in challenging economic times?

Credit unions play a pivotal role in bolstering communities’ financial well-being, especially during challenging economic times. Credit unions serve as beacons of stability and support by prioritising member-centricity, offering competitive rates, and fostering financial education. During times of crisis, such as economic downturns or natural disasters like Covid-19, credit unions provide vital lifelines, offering assistance and relief to those in need, thus strengthening the resilience and cohesion of communities.

Reflecting on your journey, what was one of the most challenging periods for the credit union, and how did you steer the organisation through it?

One of the recent challenging periods for our credit union was navigating through the Covid-19 shutdown and furloughing. Amidst widespread uncertainty and turmoil, maintaining member confidence, financial stability, and accessibility posed formidable challenges. However, we weathered the storm through prudent risk management, proactive communication, and a steadfast commitment to our core values and emerged more robust than ever. Our unwavering resilience and dedication to our mission enabled us to navigate adversity and emerge even more resilient.

How has the credit union adapted to modern changes in the financial sector, and what challenges have you faced in this transition?

Embracing digitalisation has been a cornerstone of our strategy to remain relevant and competitive in today’s rapidly evolving financial landscape. While this transition has presented its fair share of challenges, including technological adoption, cybersecurity concerns, and upskilling our workforce, it has opened up new avenues for innovation and member engagement. By leveraging technology responsibly and staying attuned to the evolving needs of our members, we’ve successfully positioned ourselves for sustained growth and relevance in the digital age. This digitalisation was accelerated due to Covid-19 – so every problem provides growth opportunities.

Diversity and inclusion are critical in all sectors. How have you championed these values within your credit union, and what impact has it had?

Since its inception, championing diversity and inclusion within our credit union has been a fundamental priority. We operate within a multicultural and diverse community; to be relevant and acceptable to that community, fostering a culture of respect and inclusiveness is necessary. As a result, our organisation has become more reflective of our diverse communities, leading to enhanced creativity, innovation, and member satisfaction. By valuing and leveraging all individuals’ unique perspectives and talents, we’ve cultivated a more inclusive and equitable environment where everyone can thrive.

What advice would you give young women aspiring to leadership in the credit union sector?

I would say to young women aspiring to leadership roles in the credit union movement: Believe in yourself, embrace your unique strengths, and never underestimate the power of perseverance. Surround yourself with mentors and allies who support and uplift you, and don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. Stay true to your values, lead with integrity, and never lose sight of the impact you can make on the world around you. Remember that every obstacle is an opportunity for growth, and with determination and resilience, you can achieve anything you set your mind to.

Looking to the future, what legacy do you hope to leave with the credit union and the communities it serves?

My greatest hope is to leave a legacy of empowerment, resilience, and community impact. I hope to be remembered as someone who tirelessly championed the cause of financial inclusion and social justice, leaving behind a credit union that continues to serve as a beacon of hope and opportunity for future generations. My ultimate legacy would be a world where everyone has equal access to financial resources and opportunities, regardless of background or circumstances. Where no one is left behind because of a lack of economic stability and where people can flourish with the help of credit unions. I am my mother’s daughter, after all.

Who were your role models or mentors, and how have they influenced your career path and leadership style?

Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to have encountered numerous role models and mentors who have guided and inspired me along my journey. From trailblazing women in the financial sector to community leaders and educators, each mentor has imparted invaluable wisdom and lessons that have shaped my leadership style and worldview. Their resilience, integrity, and unwavering commitment to service have left an indelible imprint on my approach to leadership, reminding me of the profound impact one individual can make in the lives of others.

Some of my role models are my colleagues in the credit union, but I don’t want to embarrass these “Superwomen” by pointing them out.

I have often acknowledged the profound influence my mother had on me, but alongside her, my consistent beacon of inspiration was her mother, my grandmother, affectionately known as Nana. Despite her modest education and lack of material wealth, Nana, who passed away 44 years ago, remains one of the most compassionate, wise, and nurturing individuals I have ever encountered.

Thank you to Eileen for her insight and words of wisdom, you will undoubtedly leave a lasting legacy. Let us celebrate Mothers and daughters and women everywhere, happy International Women’s Day.