From Coffee Cups to Big Bucks

Launi Skinner has Starbucks to thank for her recent success at First West. As president of the coffee empire, she gained the expertise necessary to become CEO of British Columbia’s third-largest credit union.

“I like to be a role model, not just for other women, but for everyone. If I can give women advice on being in a leadership role, I would—but I don’t think about being female. I just do what I do because I love doing it, and I’m lucky because I’ve had some great people helping me get here.” —Launi Skinner

Launi Skinner was born to lead. Her greatest strength: “I can maximize a thousand people to [manifest] a vision,” she says. “I can take broad-scale concepts with large groups of people and achieve great results.”

Skinner got an opportunity to decide what that vision would be when she came onboard First West Credit Union as CEO in 2010. At the time, First West was putting the finishing touches on a rather unique business deal: it merged two credit unions, Valley First and Envision Financial, but preserved both brand names and cultures. “Each of them had a strong, well-known brand across [their respective] local communities for decades, so changing the names would not have been in anyone’s best interest,” Skinner says. “So they merged under the parent company of First West, achieving scale across the company but keeping their names and local leadership.”

Today, First West is the third-largest credit union in British Columbia, with $6.6 billion in assets, more than 169,000 members, and nearly 1,400 employees. Combining the two companies has given First West more leverage with vendors, put more buying resources at its disposal, provided opportunities to promote staff members that, as a smaller organization, it might not be able to afford, and allowed it to change local lending limits as a result of a bigger balance sheet.

Skinner came to First West with 20 years of business-building and leadership experience at Starbucks and 1-800-GOT-JUNK?. As president of Starbucks US, she oversaw 7,000 company-owned stores and 3,400 franchises, managing a team with operational responsibility for 130,000 employees. She also has a history of community involvement, including her past role as the event chair for the Vancouver YWCA Women of Distinction Awards, as a community leader for the Minerva Foundation, and as a member of the Board of Governors for Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Her success has not gone unnoticed. In 2007, Skinner was listed as one of “Four Women to Watch” in Fortune magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Women feature. In both 2010 and 2011, she was named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network, and in 2011 she received the Stevie Award for Best Canadian Executive.

As her first task at First Union, Skinner began shaping the new group’s vision. The result was First West’s “six ideals”: succeed together; act local; value all; make common-sense decisions; create good things; and inspire exceptional results. “They are our guiding principles,” she says. “They give our people empowerment and an emotional connection to where we’re going and why we’re going there, and provide a filter to make decisions against, guiding them to make the best decision at that moment.”

Skinner is extremely competitive, having played basketball and ridden horses competitively as a teen. But she also considers herself a servant leader—someone who’s sole responsibility is to serve their constituents. At Starbucks, she learned a lot about how customers want to be treated from the moment they walk through the door. Early in her career, she met former Starbucks president Howard Behar.

“[Behar] was passionate about delivering an exceptional customer experience,” she says. “He said, ‘We’re always quick to find the problem but never quick to be the one to fix the problem.’ So one day he asked, ‘If not you, then who?’ and it stuck with me. It made me realize that I am the solution.”

Skinner took this message to heart and uses it to empower her staff and team all the time. “I used it recently in our town-hall kickoff meeting to help the 1,100 staff members who attended understand what a powerful role they play in how they respond to a member question, and that when they look for a different solution, the whole organization is better because of that,” she says.

Another key skill Skinner uses on the job is listening. “My daughter asked me what I do at my job,” she says, “and I thought, ‘How do I break this down into something a four-year-old would understand?’ I told her, ‘I listen a lot.’” Listening, she says, is probably the most underrated yet important skill for a leader, not just listening to the words being spoken, but also to the words not being spoken. “[Behar] used to say the walls speak,” Skinner says. “If you walk into a room, stand there and check out the body language and the vibe in the room. If you listen, you’ll hear more about what’s not being said or what needs to be asked than what is. I also found that listening helps me understand that there is no single way of getting from point A to point B, and I don’t get stuck on doing things one way.”

For all people who aspire to lead, Skinner says, don’t be afraid to take risks: “It’s not about the fancy title. Embrace your opportunities, and they will lead you to success.”