On May 5, 2012, I left the job that was my life’s work.
For nearly 30 years, I led the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, the charitable organization/trade association for credit unions serving low-income communities. It combined my passion to serve the poor and the underserved with a desire to build something. I sometimes referred to the Federation as my “second born.” But it was time to leave.
I had joined the Federation in 1980, and became the executive director in 1983, when the Federation’s federal funding had run out, and all the staff had left. I ran it without pay for a year, living on a graduate fellowship, running it first out of my house, then out of 80 borrowed square feet on the second floor of a credit union in East Harlem. Patching together programs and funding, we hobbled through the 1980s. As late as 1990, our budget was so precarious that I found myself loaning money to the Federation to cover salaries. I was 45 years old; I loved my work, but it was not a viable way to live.
But things got better. We made breakthroughs and began an upward trajectory. My concept for a federal Community Development Financial Institutions Fund won support, and by 1994 became a reality. We were able to raise tens of millions of dollars to reinvest in our CDCUs and sustain the Federation. Our membership quadrupled. I, and the Federation, achieved gratifying recognition from the credit union movement in 2005, when I won the National Credit Union Foundation’s Herb Wegner Award.
Reaching a Milestone
By that time, I was 60 years old. I had accomplished far more than I ever imagined. The Federation was as financially secure as any nonprofit might hope to be; yes, there was a substantial budget to raise each year, but sufficient net worth to ensure our continuity. It was time to think about the organization’s long-term future, and my own. One of my board members enthusiastically recommended that I get training from an organization that specialized in helping nonprofits to take the next steps in their organizational development.
‘The Federation is Cliff’ (Not!)
Although many people believed that I had founded the Federation, it had been born a half-dozen years before I joined it. But I had brought it back from death’s door, rebuilt it, and been the face of the Federation for more than two decades. “The Federation is Cliff,” people often said.
Now that was a big red flag! That kind of overly personal identification is potentially fatal for any organization, credit unions included, and extremely damaging for the individual. And so, I went off to two intensive days of instruction and group work tailored for people like me, the founders or long-time CEOs of nonprofits. This experience was profoundly emotional and crucially important for me. We learned how, for many people like us, leaving organizations we loved evoked similarities to the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s analysis of the stages of dying — the denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. We learned the important of “ensuring a good ending,” both for the departing executive and the organization, of “pivoting” to the next stage of our respective lives.
So, armed with this deeper understanding of what was to come, I began thinking about moving on. By 2008, my plans began to take shape. I picked a nice, neat target date for retirement: April 20, 2010, my 65th birthday, after 30 years with the Federation.
My board and I dutifully set in motion the transition processes. We did some strategic planning, set up board committees, and put out an RFP for an executive search firm. The process moved along through mid-summer. Then, I panicked. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, in a state of anxiety about the first Monday in my new, retired life: no hobbies, no interest in golf, no grandchildren. Could I reconsider my decision? Pride prevented me from asking the board for a do-over.
That September, the financial crisis accelerated. Lehman Brothers fell, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac needed rescues, the financial system everywhere was on the brink. My board held its regular meeting in October, in San Francisco. Late one night, the message light on my phone lit up, but I ignored it. Early the next morning, I got a call from my board chairwoman: “We were talking things over, what with this financial crisis. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to stay?”
Yes, I would. I gave a huge sigh of relief, and shelved my retirement demons for a while.
Fighting through the Great Recession
For three more years, I continued to do the work I knew, and that I did best. Times were hard; credit unions were suffering. And the Federation suffered, too: the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates to near zero, costing us hundreds of thousands of dollars of interest income on our reserves and investments in credit unions.
We swam upstream for several years, our balance sheet strong enough but making budget was a big challenge, as raising grant dollars became harder and harder. By 2011, I was 66 years old. I was not burned out, but I had had enough. I began to issue warnings to my staff and board: I will leave sometime, maybe sooner than you think.
Then, in October of 2011, a unique job listing caught my attention: come help the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) establish its Office of Financial Empowerment, which would be responsible for policies and programs concerning low-income consumers. I submitted a resume, and heard nothing for two months — to my great relief. In the final days of December, a call came. A week later, on Jan. 3, 2012, I traveled to Washington for a round of interviews. Two weeks later, I was offered the job, and my transition began in earnest.
Going to the “Dark Side”: A Clean Break
For me, going to the “the dark side,” as my credit union friends called it, was the perfect next step. Above all, it enabled me to avoid the disastrous “founder syndrome” that characterized bad transitions, when long-time CEOs whose name was the “brand” of their organizations retired. Many of these figures never really left: they hovered on the sidelines in some honorary position, undermined their successors, or simply left the organization in a mess.
I saw terrible examples of credit union CEOs who were prepared to see their institutions perish rather than voluntarily depart. In another particularly poignant example, a retiring CEO with decades of tenure begged a board member to succeed her — and then, when the board member did so, proceeded to undermine her. I personally witnessed a particularly horrible, bitter example in a nonprofit on whose board I sat. That was not the way I wanted to leave the Federation.
Joining the CFPB meant a surgically clean break. I would not choose my successor, or even influence the process of succession. I was ethically barred from doing business with the Federation for a year. I would begin a different kind of work, in line with my core values, in an exciting new venture. The Federation gave me a fine send-off at its Annual Conference. I left with no regrets, no stored-up resentments at being underappreciated, no need to invent hobbies — or learn golf.
Six months later, the Federation chose my successor, Cathie Mahon. Bright, talented, energetic, she also had worked for me years earlier, and I was a big admirer, even though I could not lobby for her. She is changing the business model of the Federation, as indeed she needs to. The Federation will thrive. As I hope I will.
This article is the first of three in a series published in Credit Union Journal. A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2014 edition.