unCUlturers: musings on organizational culture & development (and stuff about credit unions too)
 
I've seen and heard it time and again. "We're going to fix our culture." Or, "For the next six months we're going to focus on our people." Or, "I hope we can get our morale issue under control so we can get back to business."

Yikes.

Imagine if you took this approach to a health and wellness program. In fact, many of us have had this very experience (don't judge me). It usually begins around January 1, doesn't it? We get really motivated to get in better shape, eat right, and so on. We buy gym memberships and workout clothes that fit a little snugly (because after all, we're going to lose weight, right?) and march off to the gym, determined that this time will be different. This time we won't give up in March. We'll at least give it until June.

We all know that to get lasting results in the health arena, we have to continually manage ourselves in this area. We have to keep eating right, and we have to keep getting to the gym to exercise. It's an ongoing thing, or at least it should be.

The same is true in regards to group culture. In our organizations (for most of my readers, that means our credit unions), we too often try to stick bandaids on culture issues rather than taking a long-term, strategic approach to them. Rather than understanding that culture is an ongoing initiative, we relegate it to some sort of temporary project.

Six months later we end up on the couch, bothered that we can't fit into our workout clothing; but not bothered enough to actually do something about it on an ongoing basis. There's always next year.
 
 
Ed Brett, of British Columbia’s Westminster Savings Credit Union, spoke recently at the Credit Union Water Cooler Symposium (CUWCS) in Fishers, IN. I found myself wanting to stand and applaud much of what he said, though in the interest of being transparent, I had that impulse multiple times during the CUWCS. Ed’s argument is one I’ve made myself in regards to the credit union world at large, and even to my own credit union. For being relatively small, a lot of credit unions seem to conduct business as if they’re very large, cumbersome organizations; and I’m not entirely sure why that is. It’s likely a function of several different factors, but suffice it to say that when those factors come together, it’s like a perfect storm.

In high school, the varsity basketball team I played on didn’t have a ton of height. What we did have, however, was a tremendous amount of talent at the guard positions, and almost everyone on the team was at least fairly fast and quick. So what did we do? We played run-and-gun, press-for-four-quarters, adjust-on-the-fly basketball. We used what many teams would have seen as a disadvantage as an advantage. As credit unions, it’s imperative that we do the same. 

If you think about it, as the business world (and the world at large, for that matter) continues to speed up, it would seem that as credit unions, we have an advantage over larger financial institutions in that we can adjust more quickly to the ever-changing financial and economic environment. If we ignore this advantage, we do so to our own detriment.

Credit unions should be ahead of the curve in regards to utilizing technology to improve members’ banking experiences. We should be ahead of the curve in regards to embracing and cultivating healthy, unique organizational cultures. The time it takes for a product or service to go from inception to implementation should be far less for credit unions than larger financial institutions. Credit Unions should be able to provide a much higher level of products and services that are customized to their individual memberships. Credit unions’ training and development departments should be able to drop and deploy quickly with progressive, innovative development initiatives.

So why do we see the opposite as often as we do? Why do we see credit unions that have a difficult time embracing and driving change? Why don’t we see more credit unions taking advantage of their size in such a way that allows them to be agile, nimble competitors in the financial services market? 

 
 
I admittedly didn’t know what exactly to expect from a conference whose centerpiece was a gurgling water receptacle. I attended the Credit Union Water Cooler Symposium (CUWCS) based on a recommendation from my friend Andy Janning, and as it turned out, a couple other folks from my credit union were going as well. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I went, how cool the conference was, how much I appreciate the organizers, and how stoked I am when I think about continuing the dialogue that began in that Mac-infested room. The next few blog posts here will likely reflect on various ideas and themes from the CUWCS. 

Robbie Wright (CUInnovators.com) opened the sessions with a discussion of credit unions being sexy. Yes, cringing credit union readers, sexy. I realize that by using the word sexy two times (three now) that I’ve already lost half my readers (or have I gained some?). I really liked Wright’s presentation for a number of reasons. It was one of those presentations where I could tell that Robbie didn’t really care so much if we agreed with every nuance of every point he made, but rather, he wanted us to think about it. 

As an aside, that’s one of those things that those of us who are presenters and credit union advocates need to do a better job at. Too often we need our listeners to fully agree, and even adore, the position we’ve taken on an issue instead of being excited about the fact that whether they agree with us or not, they’re mentally engaging the subject matter. Really, we should take disagreement as a sign of success, because we’ve gotten folks to care enough and mentally invest enough to disagree. In fact, that’s one of the trends I liked about the whole conference. Opposing viewpoints were expressed, and everybody was cool with it. There didn’t seem to be a lot of ego in the room, but a perfect dose of appropriate irreverence was noticeable. But I digress.

I hope the attendees didn’t miss Robbie’s point amidst ogling pictures of David and Victoria Beckham. He made a statement that stuck with me, and actually sent my mind wandering in a dozen directions. He implied that the sexy stuff in our world could and should be the simple, everyday stuff like having nice facilities, interacting with each other well, etc.

In other words, healthy credit union culture is sexy. 

You know that feeling you have about your significant other? The one that makes you feel like, though you might have disagreements, you still click? That’s how members and employees (we too often forget the employee piece of this) should feel about both their credit union and the credit union movement. We have to do a far better job of understanding who we are and what our movement is about. People can’t be passionate about that which they don’t adequately understand. 

Further, without really engaging the culture question on both a macro and micro level, the rest of what was discussed at the CUWCS will amount to little more than window dressing. An awesome website and amazing social media strategy will in the end ring hollow with unengaged employees and members who don’t really get what we’re about. Instead, we need to give our people a compelling context within which to function, and potential members a compelling reason to join our tribe.  

I’d like to think that credit union advocates are credit union advocates because we have a bit of a heretical edge to us. We’re different from the norm, and we like that. Ideas that we (should) cling to are scoffed at by other financial institutions. Fine. Let ‘em scoff. While they’re scoffing, we’re conducting meaningful business in a way that helps people and communities.

So let’s bring sexy back. Let’s work on the simple things that make a huge difference to our internal and external members. And let’s hope that at the next CUWCS someone (I’m looking at you, James Robert Lay of CUSWAG fame) puts together a music video to the tune of the Justin Timberlake song.