CEO Spotlight: Five Ways Golden 1’s CEO Donna Bland Achieves Alignment, Innovation and Growth


What can your credit union take away from the 25-year veteran and now CEO of Golden 1 CU? Putting people first and making a difference in their lives are two of the important driving forces behind Donna Bland’s illustrious career. See what other attributes have led to her success and uncover some ideas for applying them at your credit union.

Several times a month I have the honor of discussing leadership and strategy with leading CEOs in the credit union industry. This month’s conversation was with Donna Bland, CEO of California’s Golden 1 Credit Union.

Donna has been Golden 1’s CEO for 11 years and has been with the company for 2 years. Her background as a CPA has enabled her to serve Golden 1 in different financial positions such as Controller and CFO. In those 20 years, the CU has had tremendous success, increasing its assets from $1.5 billion to its current size.

The spirit in which Donna leads Golden 1 is reflected in two of her favorite quotes:
• “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this – you haven’t.” – Thomas Edison
• “If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” – Thomas Jefferson

In Donna, I found a refreshing blend of:
• Passion for family, Golden 1’s members and employees, and the CU industry;
• Strategic thinking and execution solidly grounded in Golden 1’s mission, vision and core values;
• Creativity focused on adapting to the changing needs of consumers, while still adhering to the company’s mission, vision and core values.

With my clients I often refer to what I call the “3 C’s” of capital, culture and community to describe the purposes of a business: earning profits, creating an environment where employees can thrive and being a benefactor to its community.

Donna displayed this same philosophy in every aspect of our conversation, summarized by her statement, “CEOs need to be member advocates, establish cultures where employees can thrive and reinvest back into their communities. The world would be better if we all recognized the importance of people. People have lives and they matter.”

At her essence, Donna is a CEO who prioritizes her role as a steward, as someone who can make a difference in the lives of many people. She harnesses her leadership skills to manage a nearly $10 billion credit union while positively impacting its members, employees and communities … just the way a business is supposed to work.

In particular I was impressed with these five attributes in Donna:
1. She has a passionate focus on Golden 1’s mission, vision and core values.
2. She is a thoughtful communicator with an emphasis on adapting to the styles of board members and direct reports.
3. She has a deep concern for people and her role as a steward.
4. She is always closely watching, anticipating and innovating around consumer demand.
5. She develops dynamic, integrated strategy based on all of the above, tightly monitored with metrics, and she is adaptive to changing market conditions.
Allow me to dissect these five attributes and then proceed to the details of our discussion.

Passionate Focus on Golden 1’s Mission, Vision and Core Value

Donna told me, “Everything we do is focused on our identity.” When she became CEO, Donna and her board went through the process of reconfirming Golden 1’s mission, vision and strategic goals within the context of the CU’s core values.

Her main priority is to ensure those words come alive instead of just gathering dust in hallway picture frames. At Golden 1, the focus lies on reinforcing these key concepts repeatedly in both word and deed so employees clearly see, by example, that they are embraced at the highest level and can confidently live the brand themselves as well.

According to Gallup’s “Study on the American Workforce,” this atmosphere is in stark contrast to what occurs in most American businesses, where reportedly less than 50 percent of all managers and 40 percent of employees say they clearly understand their company’s brand.

Let’s drive that point a little closer to home. In a survey I performed of CUs in the Cornerstone Credit Union League, about half of respondents said they only “slightly agree” that employees can clearly articulate their brand and strategy.

My point is, what Donna is doing is not the across-theindustry norm. The best leaders know consistently living a brand drives employee engagement and performance, quality of member experience and ultimately the success of their credit union.

Here are some of the ways this passionate focus on brand, mission, vision and core values manifests itself:
1. Developing strategies and corresponding metrics at both enterprise and division levels that reflect one common goal: the mission of delivering financial solutions with value, convenience and exceptional service;
2. Hiring leaders based not just on skills and experience but also on their ability to embrace and reflect Golden 1’s brand, mission, vision and core values – Donna hires on the basis of how leaders take care of their employees and their ability to deliver exceptional service in a team environment. This helps ensure a candidate is not just a good fit for the job but is a good fit for the job specifically at Golden 1.
3. Creating purpose statements for each position that reflect a broad responsibility across the organization and connect each employee to Golden 1’s mission
– These statements go far beyond job descriptions and are part of annual performance reviews. They provide clarity, accountability and greater employee engagement.

Thoughtful, Two-Way Communication

An interesting aspect of our discussion focused on the successful execution of strategy and how dependent it is on great communication.

Donna paraphrased a Steve Jobs interview that conveyed how having a vision is important, but if after that you don’t wholeheartedly commit to exceptional execution, then the great idea can be for naught. She related that one of the biggest challenges in executing strategy is what happens after the initial vision is developed.

That brought back memories of when my employees and I agreed to the vision of improving how we managed relationships with the bank’s most profitable customers on a daily basis. What they actually executed was a single mortgage campaign targeting part of our most profitable customers, not a plan to manage those ongoing relationships. Somehow there was a communication breakdown between concept and execution, and this is what Donna was referencing.

The fact that instances like this one are common is reflected in my Cornerstone research, where most CUs said they were better at creating strategy than executing it.

The way Donna manages this division between conception and execution is to set up clear milestones for each strategy and to work with each person involved to ensure s/he is clear on the desired outcomes. As an example, some people may understand communication better visually and others verbally. The key is understanding each individual and adapting to his or her most effective communication style. This adaptability takes effort and flexibility on a leader’s part, but it helps other people execute, and that’s what matters.

Deep Concern for People and Her Stewardship Role

At times I have related my experience of realizing that as a leader I was primarily in the people development business, and it is clear that Donna strongly embraces that concept. While she is an exceptional strategist and leader, she realizes the end goal of those attributes must be to change lives.

Donna believes wholeheartedly that what she and her Golden 1 team are doing makes a difference in the lives of their members. Just as importantly, a primary responsibility she sees within her role as CEO is creating a culture where employees can thrive.

She told me, “We (CEOs) can make or break the lives of our people. We are stewards and need to have cultures that allow them to thrive in work and in life.”

Watching, Anticipating, Innovating around Consumer Demand

When we discussed changes in the industry and Golden 1’s strategy, Donna referenced evolving consumer demand, the need for 24/7 service and the necessity of creating an omnichannel experience where members can interact with Golden 1 whenever and however they choose.

Consumer demands are changing, often rapidly, and what delivered member satisfaction yesterday won’t necessarily be what delivers it today or tomorrow. Golden 1 performs continuous and extensive research to keep its finger on the pulse of consumers. Additionally, minority opinions are not ignored. Donna knows and appreciates that a minority opinion today could become a majority point of view tomorrow.

This mindset is different from what happens at most companies, even large and successful ones. I remember entire product lines being rolled out without soliciting one ounce of consumer feedback. I have experienced many more times when market research was conducted but the results were not acted upon by leaders.

Financial services firms are notorious for presuming to know their members and customers, although the research that gave them that confidence has in fact grown quite stale. Golden 1’s approach to using ongoing market research to stay abreast of changing member needs and perceptions helps the CU adapt its strategy to meet those demands while maintaining faithfulness to its mission, vision and core values.

Dynamic Strategy Founded on Core Values and Tightly Measured Metrics

With a rock-solid mission, vision and core values as a foundation that is consistently reinforced, Golden 1’s strategy is dynamic.

Using ongoing research of consumer demand as a starting point, three-year strategies are developed for the enterprise and each division, with the singular goal of fulfilling the credit union’s mission.
As strategic goals are created and metrics are developed at both the enterprise and division levels, execution is deployed with an eye toward ensuring what happens is what was actually envisioned.
Considerably aiding execution is the fact that each position in Golden 1 has a written purpose tied to fulfilling the CU’s mission. Giving employees a greater sense of purpose and clarity beyond a job description is one way Golden 1 creates higher employee engagement and strong execution.

Like any exceptional company, Golden 1 reassesses its performance against metrics and any new research or information on consumer demand, and then the cycle repeats.
Once again, my Cornerstone research showed that using daily metrics to evaluate progress toward achieving strategic goals is not common among credit unions. The majority of CUs answered “slightly agree” or worse when asked if they measured daily actions against strategic goals.


Scott MclymondsScott McClymonds is a veteran leader in the financial services industry and an expert at  creating and executing profitable strategies that make businesses grow. His company, CEO Velocity, is a strategic consulting firm that helps CEOs of financial services firms and small to mid-sized enterprises create greater customer loyalty, profits and company value. You can  reach Scott at 479.263.0774, scottm@ceovelocity. com or @ scottmcclymonds.

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