Home » Top Women in Business Spotlight: Karen Harbin

Top Women in Business Spotlight: Karen Harbin

By Lorie Hailey

(Editor’s note: The March issue of  The Lane Report features our semi-annual list of the Top Women in Business. At lanereport.com, we’re shining the spotlight on one of the honorees each day. Day 8: Karen Harbin, president and CEO of Commonwealth Credit Union.)

Our occasional feature, Top Women in Business, highlights some of the women in and around Kentucky who are making an impact in business, the professions, politics and economic development. The intent is to recognize not the household names, but those in key roles whose work ethic and body of work are making important contributions to commerce—and life—in the area.

Karen Harbin grew up in Mount Sterling, Ky., and currently lives in Frankfort, Ky.

The 12 women featured in this issue are among the many such women The Lane Report editorial board has identified. From automotive manufacturing plant president to hospital executive, and economic development director to law firm leader, these women are forging their own paths, proving that hard work, perseverance and creativity pay off. And for the first time in this series, we’re shining a spotlight on some of Kentucky’s top female television personalities, offering a glimpse behind the camera.

Karen Harbin is president and CEO of Commonwealth Credit Union, where she has worked since 1986. Since taking the helm in 2012, she has prioritized improving corporate culture and communication with members.

Karen Harbin

Title/company: President/CEO of Commonwealth Credit Union. I also serve as a member of the credit union’s board of directors, balancing that role with the authority of the president/CEO position.

Years at company/position: Thirty-I five years with Commonwealth Credit Union, 10 of those as president.

Previous positions: My Commonwealth Credit Union story began in 1986 when I was hired as chief accountant. I have enjoyed serving in different positions throughout the credit union, which has given me a holistic view of the credit union industry and helped shape my leadership style to what it is today. Since transitioning to president/CEO, I’ve helped grow the credit union from five to 15 branches, reinvented the company culture, and put the credit union on the map, earning national recognition among credit unions.

Education/training: Accounting degree from Eastern Kentucky University. After graduating, I took my first job as auditor of public accounts for the Commonwealth of Kentucky and became a certified public accountant (CPA).

Top accomplishment: When I became president and CEO … we worked with the Disney Institute to overhaul of culture from the ground up. I went into this project thinking that we were going to take something good and make it great, but the culture had to be completely redefined. I realized that our culture needed to be reshaped so that our focus was on employee empowerment, recognition and care for others. Everyone is important to our success. Each of our team members has a voice, and they know I am always here to listen. Team members have a higher level of engagement when they are involved and their contributions are valued. As a result, Commonwealth Credit Union has been named as one of the Top 10 Best Places to Work in Kentucky in the medium-sized category by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce for the last two years.

The person(s) who most influenced me: My mom has had the biggest influence in my life. She worked from home as a bookkeeper so that she could be home with me and my twin sister. I was drawn to numbers at an early age, and I always knew I wanted to work in an office setting. I found numbers fascinating and my mother’s work ethic admirable. I also wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentorship of Curt Steger, my Sunday School teacher and high school history teacher. My first job [in banking] was with Curt, who served as president of the Mt. Sterling Savings and Loan. It wasn’t the technical aspects of the job that I took away [from the experience], it was his ability to lead people. He led by his faith and from the heart.

My biggest challenge and how I overcame it: When I entered the credit union industry, there were no women in leadership roles at that time, but I’ve never been one to settle for the status quo. I knew I wanted to earn a seat at the leadership table because I had a lot to offer and a lot to say. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. By staying true to myself and knowing that I could add value, I accomplished my goal of earning a spot at the table. As I look at the names of Kentucky and credit union CEOs across the nation, I’m proud to be among a larger group of women who have redefined the leadership profile.

My advice to younger women in business: Anyone can be taught how to do a job, but to do it well — that takes passion. When you find out where your passion lies and you are willing to put forth the effort and work hard, your growth can be limitless. Leadership means something different to everyone. Some believe that to be a leader, you must have the title of president or CEO, but I believe that leadership is found at all levels. If you aspire to move up the ladder, you have to continuously work on developing yourself. You have to put yourself in a position to contribute and show that you can add value. Moving up takes patience.

Something I love doing: I love volunteering for the American Heart Association and raising money to further their mission. One way I like to keep my heart healthy is by exercising at Pure Barre. I encourage everyone to keep trying different ways to stay active until you find the one that you love.

One important skill everyone should have: Organization. I know it doesn’t come easily for everyone, but finding a way to stay organized will truly help you excel in life.

A song from my childhood/teenage years that I still rock out to when no one else is around: Any song by Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin. I love listening to good music on my way in to work.


Other Top Women in Business stories
Day 1: Susan Elkington
Day 2: Marjorie Farris
Day 3: Sarah Davasher-Wisdom
Day 4: Connie Smith
Day 5: Diane Whalen
Day 6: Yajaira Aich West
Day 7: Rebecca Fleischaker