Casey Cunningham – wife, mom and XINNIX Founder and CEO – goes by the call-sign “Blade,” because of her ability to cut to the chase. With more than 30 years of diverse retail mortgage banking experience, Casey is one of the most influential and trusted leaders in the industry.
The Atlanta Women’s Pacesetters List recognized Casey as the city’s fifth most influential female business owner. She has also been named one of the Top Female Entrepreneurs by Atlanta Woman Magazine. She was named one of HousingWire’s Women of Influence in 2015 and was a 2016 Roaring Twenty awards winner with NAWRB, the National Association of Women in Real Estate Businesses.
Casey was recognized as one of the top loan originators in the U.S., and is the chief architect of the most proven, successful, and respected mortgage learning programs in the nation. She has led her team to win nine culture awards and is deemed one of the fastest-growing businesses in Atlanta. Casey has a passion for professional standards, education, sales productivity, and accountability, and has empowered professionals across the nation to experience more fulfilling and productive careers.
Mortgage Women Magazine’s Managing Editor, Kristin Messerli had an opportunity to visit with Casey “Blade” Cunningham to share with our readership just what powers this astute, insightful, mortgage industry leader.
MWM: What is your primary mission in the industry?
CC: My mission is very easy. It is to elevate the industry and empower knowledgeable professionals to serve consumers that are buying homes today.
MWM: What is some of the best work or life advice that you’ve ever received?
CC: The best life advice I ever received was from my mother, who said to pursue excellence in everything I do – to be your very best each and every day and each moment, leaving it all on the table. The best work advice was about putting others first and serving them with compassion. If I can help others succeed, then I certainly am going to continue to grow.
MWM: Can you recommend one book or film that has had a major impact on your career trajectory?
CC: I could name so many books, but probably the most prominent is the Bible. It has life lessons throughout. That’s definitely been the greatest influence on how I lead and how I have grown as a human being.
In terms of movies, there’s a million of them because I’m a huge movie buff, but I love all the motivational ones you can imagine from Brave Heart to Rudy. I love the movies where the underdog wins in the end because they just didn’t give up. A motto I have in my family and in my business is “Cunninghams never give up.” So, when you’re faced with a challenge, that challenge is just an opportunity to grow and to thrive.
MWM: What advice would you want to give any young woman seeking a career in the mortgage industry today?
CC: You know Kristin, I stumbled into this industry. I’m just so excited you asked that question because I didn’t get the advice or the insight I’m about to share. If I had known this as a young woman, I think I would have pursued it a lot earlier. When I stumbled into this career, the thing that became obvious to me is that it is a career that gives you the opportunity to really help people at one of the most influential times in their life.
For any young woman that is considering a future career, if she loves helping people and assisting them at one of the most influential times in their life, if she wants to give back to her community and society, and if she loves flexibility and the opportunity to create her own destiny, then the mortgage industry is for her.
Most people want three things in life, and I’m just going to call this the American Dream. They typically want to get married, buy a home, and have children. In this industry, you get the chance to help people with one of their most significant life goals, and that’s buying a home.
So, my best advice is, if anything I just said resonates with you, explore it to the nth degree. And I would recommend that they actually shadow loan officers and processors, and find which path within our industry is right for their skill set.
MWM: What is one of your favorite memories starting out as a loan officer?
CC: I’m one of those women that cry at Charmin® commercials! I am emotional and just love seeing beautiful things, and I’ll never forget the first time I was at a closing table with a couple that I had given financial advice. They were getting their first home and as the keys were passed across the table, they started crying. I got this huge opportunity to watch this special moment, and I didn’t take it for granted. Here I was sitting at the table watching someone cry because of me helping them, and I thought what else could I ever possibly want to do.
MWM: Why do you think we don’t have very many women in leadership positions in the mortgage industry?
CC: You know, it’s interesting, because I don’t think many people in general even know that our industry exists in the sense of a career path. I would have never gotten into it if I hadn’t joined a bank and asked what the mortgage department was because there was a job posting there. You know, I think what I’m seeing is there are more women than ever in a leadership role in our industry, not as many, of course, as in the male role, but I think it’s on the rise as people are seeing the value and the incredible insight women have. I think in the old days there were primarily more male loan officers, and female leaders in our industry just didn’t evolve because there just weren’t that many within the sales arena. So, I’m excited about what the future holds, especially as I’ve traveled the country and get to meet these female executives and owners of mortgage companies. It’s pretty exciting.
MWM: As we see more women moving into leadership, do you foresee any potential barriers to women developing their careers or pursuing leadership aspirations in this industry?
CC: You know there can be barriers if you think there are. I’ve always had the mindset that there are not any. There’s a speech that I do where I talk very specifically about the three most powerful words for any human being and, when you own these three words and you literally embrace them, then there’s nothing that’s going to stop you. The three words are: I am responsible. So, I am responsible if I don’t get promoted. I am responsible if I don’t get advanced.
I’ve always believed that it’s not that I’m a female or that I’m Hispanic, but that I own it and I must perform. So, I never saw those factors as barriers. I was the only female at the executive table at my last company prior to opening mine. And you know, people have asked me on a regular basis what it’s like, and I always think, I don’t know what it isn’t like. I continued to get promoted, and I believe it was a result of some things that I did without thinking about barriers. I would advise women now to take ownership in their own performance to help them in their advancement. They might not initially think of that as a priority, but that is my advice on how to get into a leadership role.
MWM: What advice would you give to women that would like to move into leadership roles?
CC: In looking back as I studied leadership later in life, I realized I did some things accidently, that resulted in promotions and opportunities. One is I didn’t think of myself as a man or woman, but, I did self-promotion way better than most people today. What I mean by that is when I would accomplish something, I wouldn’t just keep it hidden. I would send an email to my direct manager and say, ‘hey, just wanted to let you know what I got accomplished.’ Now, that sounds so easy, and you would think everybody does it; but, I’m going to tell you, to this day, I have to coach individuals even in my own company to give me insight about what they’re getting accomplished.
If you are getting things done on a day-to-day basis, accomplishing something big, you need to let your leader know. They will take note of a quick email, a quick communication saying, ‘hey, I just want to give you some quick insight, we got x, y, and z done, or we accomplished something,’. A lot of women, and I’m going to say specifically women, might think that that is bragging. It is not bragging. It is giving insight as to what you and your capabilities are bringing to the company. I did that naturally, not realizing it at all.
There’s another piece of advice I give to all women: I work hard. I mean, I worked harder than everybody and, as my mother said, I did my very best and gave it all that I had. I knew that I was working harder, and I was getting better results, but I wasn’t getting promoted. I kept thinking ‘why am I not getting promoted?’ I went to my direct manager and challenged him and asked him why. He said, “well, do you think people want to report to you, because it’s all about you.” I asked him what he meant, and he said, “If I promote you into a management role, will everybody applaud me, or will they be disturbed? You can’t make it about you anymore. It’s about helping others.” I thought I was helping others, but, it was more about me.
My three pieces of advice are 1) act like you already have the job; 2) make it about helping others; and 3) make sure someone knows the impact you are having, specifically your direct manager. Hopefully, that will help some ladies out there.
MWM: Thanks, that’s practical, helpful advice. The theme throughout this interview is around servant leadership and building that culture around serving others. You’ve led your organization to win nine culture awards. What do you think drives your success as a leader?
CC: I’m going to try not to tear up, because it’s so passionate for me. We won the awards because the people that work for me are amazing human beings. I think they know that I care about them. I care about their development, I care about their fulfillment, I care about their future, I care about their security, and they know that. How I show all of that, besides just giving them a hug and telling them I care, is I have embedded very clear processes in each of those areas.
For example, I care about their development. I want them to grow as a human being. At XINNIX, we do several things. Every associate meets with their manager once a week about their priorities, so they know exactly where they stand. Every associate has a professional development plan that says, here’s where I am and here’s where I’d like to go, and we create a plan of how to get you there. There are no surprises on the annual review when you’re meeting with your manager every single week. I thought everyone did that, but apparently that is unique.
Because I care about where they’re going, education is a core value. They’ve got to stay educated, so we require every associate to be reading a book, going to classes, or something else to better themselves. I care about their security. And what I mean by that is I’m absolutely adamant that we have the very best benefits that I can find in the marketplace. I want to make sure that they have their 401K and people are participating. I care about their fulfillment. I want to know when they drive into the parking lot and they’re about to walk into the building, that they love their job and that they love what they do, so we are constantly evaluating do we have the right people in the right seats, are they fulfilled, and, if someone’s struggling, we don’t think they are bad, we look to see if we have them in the wrong role.
We have a team briefing every Monday with everybody in a circle, and we talk about what’s going on in their priorities and do recognition every Monday for who served the best. Our core values are very prominent all over the company, and we have very clear operating principles. I don’t think it’s by accident that we’ve created this culture. I must give my leaders enormous credit because they drive it every day with me. I think they all know that they are being loved on and that we care about them, and so they will care about our customers.
I just got out of a meeting with a vendor agency that we’re looking at partnering with, and they congratulated us on our nine awards and said, “We have been trying to win those, so what are you doing?” I told them there’s a lot of little things that we do. Ultimately, the associates feel loved and they feel cared for, and they feel valued and they know that whether they work here or I help them find a perfect place, that they, as human beings, are unique and gifted in some arena, and we want to help them find that.
MWM: That’s wonderful! Well congratulations on all your success. I’ve learned so much through this short interview and know that it’s going to be very helpful for all our readers, so I really appreciate you taking the time to share your insights and for being a leader to all of us.
CC: Thank you, Kristin, for this opportunity to just share some of the insights and what we consider great things happening at XINNIX. Have an incredible day!