PITTSFIELD — John Bissell took the road less traveled on his way to become president and CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union.
Bissell, an English major at Amherst College, moved to Seattle a year after graduating and held several marketing positions before returning to the Berkshires 10 years later and taking a job with Greylock in 2003. He worked his way up the ladder and made it to the top of the credit union in 2015.
Q How does an English major end up as CEO of a bank?
A In banking, there are these traditional pathways through finance, and that's less and less true [for financial hires today]. I think it's because the people side of the business, the community side of the business, is the difference-maker. We have to have rock-solid finance people. We also have to have a strong sense of who we are and communicate that. That's basically what I've been doing for my entire career.
I had a lot of, not just marketing and PR [public relations], but management and some HR [human resources] experience; tons of experience managing people. So, Greylock hired me as VP of marketing and administration. I basically had the HR and other administrative functions report to me. ... [Becoming CEO] just evolved in a way that now seems to make sense. But at the time, when I joined as VP of marketing and administration, it was definitely not what I was thinking about. Just as it had for years and years and years, my leadership role kept expanding.
Q I've heard you say many times that you grew up in a "GE household." What does that phrase mean to you?
A When I was a kid, it meant that you were part of this big network of families that all had this one big thing in common. I remember, there were some employee and family picnics. There was just a sense that you were part of this globally important company that was the biggest difference-maker in the Berkshires.
Q So, you must understand what people refer to as "the GE mentality?"
A Totally, oh, yeah. It's core, absolutely. That sense of loss, the sense of what it was that was lost. I definitely identify with that. I feel like it's part of who I am, growing up in a GE household. But also having lived away, I have seen other communities remake themselves around totally new concepts. Most of what drove the Seattle economy while I was out there hadn't existed 10 years before. I came back feeling like, why can't we have the same premise? We can reinvent ourselves; we can grow our economy even though we lost GE, we lost Sprague [Electric].
I feel like some of my friends who never moved away, never saw the possibilities, people of my parent's generation, just feel a sense of loss that hasn't been replaced by any sort of optimism. Both things are important to me. Both things balance me out. I can't blame families for feeling a sense of devastation and loss, because we lost a lot. But now, what do we do about it?
Q What drew you away from the Berkshires after graduating from Amherst College?
A I had student loans and I had to figure out how to pay those. I had always thought about teaching and journalism. I explored both of those. But then I really latched on to marketing and communications. That's kind of the way I could really carve out a career that made sense to me."
Q What did you do in Seattle? Did it have any impact on your work at Greylock?
A I worked in successive marketing, communications and publishing-related jobs. I'd offer myself as a content provider and within a short period of time I was asked to lead whatever group I was part of. The third or fourth time that happened, I started thinking maybe that was my thing. Maybe leading groups is actually something I should stop resisting and really learn how to do that well. I helped technical experts communicate with the outside world.
Q Why did you return to the Berkshires?
A When our eldest [of two daughters] was just about school age, we started looking at public schools in Seattle. We were really concerned the public schools in our area were not good at all. ... That really opened our eyes. We were already thinking about moving back to be near friends and family and that recognition really got us moving. I was working by then for a global agency in advertising and public relations as a publicist. They agreed to allow me to live here and still work for them.
Q This spring, you earned an MBA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Why did you decide to get another degree?
A No. 1, I believe every single one of us should be learning. I was already conscious of trying to fill in my gaps. The No. 1 way to fill in my gaps is by hiring great people. I have the best lending and finance team around. Those are not skills that I have. I need to trust people who are great at that. No. 2, I need to be educated enough to know what questions to ask and understand what needs to be true. After working at Greylock for 10 years I felt like I had a pretty strong understanding of the business, but I wanted to fill my own intellectual gaps.
Q You're a member of several community organizations. You've received volunteering awards from the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, Berkshire Children and Families, and the Berkshire United Way. Why be so involved in the community?
A At Greylock, our vision statement is to enable the community to thrive. So, it's really tightly wound into the DNA of who we are as an organization. In other words, we're not a strong financial organization that likes to do things in the community; we are here to serve the community and help it to thrive.
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