No matter the industry, it all about listening and serving
It’s another sunny Sunday afternoon in the Okanagan and after another marathon week, Jackie Baron, First West’s senior vice-president of governance and corporate strategy, is finding some quality downtime with one of her best friends—her acoustic guitar.
“Playing guitar relaxes me,” says Jackie. “Maybe it’s because it reminds me of my first job. You know, when life was simpler,” she grins, reflecting back on those days of campfire singing and coming alongside camp kids in life’s journey. From those early days, Jackie has always been drawn to guiding and inspiring people.
She’s come a long way since camp days and that first real job. Her journey has been one of continual learning and new challenges—she’s worked in human resources in different industries and led corporate affairs, communications, marketing, governance and strategy areas since making the move to financial services with Valley First in 1993. Through it all, a passionate focus on people has been the common thread tying her diverse experience together.
“The credit union is no different from any other service industry,” says Jackie. “When you get down to brass tacks, it’s all about how you take care of people—no matter if they’re customers, partners or employees.”
Her assessment can be taken on good authority. Jackie spent a number of years in arguably one of the most pure service-orientated industries there is— hospitality and accommodations.
“It’s tempting to think of accommodations as requiring a deeper level of service than other industries,” she says. “It’s perceived as more personal in nature, you’re providing a home away from home for people. But that perception is shortsighted.”
“Whatever industry you’re in, you need to make sure you’re listening to people, understanding their needs,” she adds. “I’ve seen it really emerge at First West over the past two years as we learn more and more how to act local and value all in what we do and in the decisions we make.”
Whether guiding young minds, helping travelers find respite, or leading teams at an engineering firm, the people-driven skills and experience Jackie’s amassed are highly relevant in her governance and strategy role at First West.
“Strategy and governance isn’t really perceived as glamorous in the way that areas like Marketing or HR are sometimes seen,” Jackie says. “But at its heart, it’s just as exciting because what we do is aim to inspire people to be motivated beyond just their pay cheque. We want our people to believe it’s possible to make a real difference in someone else’s life through every interaction we have.”
To make that difference sometimes requires thinking differently, which isn’t always second nature to financial institutions. But the long time credit union leader sees a difference at First West, particularly in its approach to partnering.
“Credit unions today need the strength of a larger balance sheet to compete in today’s market,” she says, “but to meet our members’ needs, it’s just as important to retain the agility and quickness that is characteristic of a smaller operation. The First West model allows each partner to do just that.”
That’s why the new face of the credit union, with the combined forces of Valley First and Envision, is exciting to Jackie.
“For me, it’s about balance, and the First West model has it,” she says. “It provides financial strength and core competencies and expertise that are often not possible for smaller organizations—and at the same time, it allows partners to retain their distinctiveness.”
And this is just the first leg in the journey for First West. “In today’s market, status quo is not an option,” says Jackie. “We hope to partner with other like-minded credit unions who value the same things we do and can see the benefits of not competing on those things we don’t need to compete for.”
With the economy demanding that businesses carefully manage resources with an eye ever on the bottom line, it makes sense to share resources. One of First West’s ideals is “succeeding together,” a principle that Jackie sees examples of everyday, internally and externally. “That’s the essence of why we’re successful. We’re not in it for self, we’re in it for the team, whether it’s my own small team or the larger employee base, our partners or our members.”
Jackie’s own routine is a reflection of that selfless, team-orientated mindset. Even with videoconferencing readily available, she puts in many hours in the air, trekking from Penticton, Valley First’s regional admin centre, to Langley, Envision’s home base and head office for First West, and back again each month.
“Sure, business travel comes with the territory, but I don’t loathe it as some ‘tour of duty,’” she says. “I know how beneficial it is to spend time with people. Technology can help bridge our regions, but it just doesn’t compare to actually being in the company of people and experiencing all the nuances of working together. A little extra commuting is just part of the adventure with the new business model.”
Still, she’s human and would love to make the commute a little more relaxing.
“I’d love to bring my guitar with me. I don’t get enough time with it, so I lose my touch” she says. “I see a parallel between musical instruments and people. If you don’t spend the time, things get rusty and out of tune. And then when you do get together, your time is not as enjoyable and productive as it could be. When you spend the time, good things happen.”
Simple, yet sage advice from a leader whose investment in relationships—whether at the campfire or the board table room—has led to a career and organization she might say is pitch-perfect.