unCUlturers: musings on organizational culture & development (and stuff about credit unions too)
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There aren't a lot of companies out there filled with stupid people. Granted, there may be some, but they're certainly not the majority. By and large, organizations are filled with smart, capable people. We have technology to thank for this, at least in part. Everyone has access to the same information, the same technology. Some get in on the technology sooner than others, which provides a temporary competitive advantage; but sooner or later folks catch up.

This is partially why I maintain that healthy organizational culture is one of the biggest competitive advantages out there right now. Companies have a big opportunity to differentiate themselves in the area of culture. Like I said, organizations are full of smart people, and organizations themselves are pretty smart in regards to marketing, technology, finance, and so on. So it will be a rare occasion (though not unheard of) that an organization just blows its competition out of the water because they're significantly smarter than other organizations in their space.

What culture does, however, is it unlocks the potential within people. You can almost think of it as an accelerator of talent, a liberator of innovation. Think about it: if employees are trapped working a job they're not in love with for a company they think treats them like crap, chances are they're not going to really tap into their potential to as great a degree.

A healthy culture - one marked by high morale, high productivity, minimal confusion, minimal politics, and low turnover - is one that employees want to be a part of. They want to invest themselves in the success of the organization, because it's obvious the organization is reciprocating. They want to grow and improve, because they want to be a part of the organization's success.

So many organizations miss this potentially game-changing competitive advantage because their default strategy when something isn't going well is to look at all the "smart" things: marketing, technology, finance, etc. But, you see, the problem doesn't always lie in those areas. Often, it's a cultural issue that organizations try to address from a structural or operational perspective; and it just doesn't have any lasting impact. As a result, many groups are just left scratching their heads and going back to business as usual.

So what does your organization do to ensure its culture is a healthy one? What kinds of things have you seen organizations do to really unleash the potential within their employees? And why do so many organizations overlook this potentially huge competitive advantage?
It really is a shame, but many employees trudge into work every day on autopilot. They punch a clock, meander to their workspace, plop down into what may or may not be an ergonomically correct chair, and begin their daily countdown to 5:00PM. For these employees, there's no real passion, no real desire, no pressing urgency about their work. And why is that? For some, the work just doesn't matter. And before you go chalking that up to those employees' bad attitudes, I think we, as credit unions and other organizations, need to look in the mirror first.

We like to speak in lofty terms about the credit union movement, and rightly so. It's a very human movement, built on certain principles meant to help us all be more appropriately human. The difficulty is that we often forget to reinforce this idea with our employees as strongly or as regularly as we ought.

What I'm saying is that our employees need to know their work is relevant. They need to know it matters. And they need to know how it matters and to whom it matters. We're not just running transactions; we're helping people, day after day. Our call center employees are, call after call, helping people understand and manage their finances. We're helping them plan for their future, manage their present, and perhaps recover from their past.

A few months ago, I was speaking with some folks in the lending department at a credit union. As I often do during such conversations, I asked them why they came to work. I asked them what they did during the course of the day. I asked them if they even liked what they did. The answers I got were sadly familiar. "We fill out paperwork," they said. "We process loan applications," they continued. "I'm just here because I can't find another job," one even said in a moment of transparency. My response? "Man, when you say it that way, your work does suck."

I went on to explain what I thought of when I thought of a loan department. It's entirely different from what they were expressing to me. When I think of a loan department, I think of a group of dream facilitators. These employees come to work every day, and yes, perhaps fill out reams of paperwork. But it's not just empty paperwork. It's paperwork that is a means to an end. The lending department enables other people to accomplish their dreams on a daily basis. Do you see the huge distinction here? They're helping people, day after day, accomplish something that's a big deal to them. They're consolidating debt to make it more manageable. They're getting a new car or boat. They're finally purchasimg their first home. After saving for years, they're buying that retirement condo somewhere warm. The loan department isn't just lending money - they're fulfilling dreams. Their work matters. It's more relevant and meaningful than they know.

Credit unions and other organizations that get this idea will have more passionately engaged employees. It's actually a huge competitive advantage for your organization when your employees really understand how relevant and meaningful their work is. The question for us all is this: Do they get it? Do they know and clearly understand how meaningful their work is?
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."


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.
Many of you have been there. For many, there is a turning point in your professional lives; a point where you went from credit union (or insert your employer here) employee to passionate credit union advocate. My questions are as follows:

How did this happen?

What reasons or ideas did you find most compelling?

As I've been in contact with various credit union folks around the country, I've found that a lot of credit unions (and other types of businesses as well) have the same dilemma. They have scores, hundreds even, of employees who are just there. They're there, they're doing their jobs, they're punching the clock; but they're not really engaged and passionate about their position, their own credit union, or the credit union movement as a whole.

What can we do about it? What will you do about it?
Training magazine has published a couple articles of mine within the past weeks. Here's part of one of them:

"Corporate mission statements and core values lists are filled with buzzwords, aren’t they? I’ve said it time and again to various folks I know in the larger business world. You can keep your catchphrases, because until those ideas translate into the culture of an organization, they’re useless.The trap many teams and organizations fall into is mistaking their excitement about a certain catchphrase or concept for actual, cultural change or identity.

The question then becomes 'How can executive teams and organizational development practitioners get things from being simply catchphrases to actually being defining elements of organizational culture?'

I’m so glad you asked. There are a few steps an organization can take to work toward a unified cultural vision, and then some ideas around what we within the training and development world can do to help drive that change."

Check out the rest of the article at Training magazine's website here.

Why do so many organizations, be they churches, non-profits, or corporations, claim to really engage their people; while people at these same organizations would have a hard time agreeing  that that's the case?

Odd, yet sadly predictable in many scenarios...
Hey, Gang. 

My apologies on my absence from the unCUlturers blog. This absence was largely unavoidable. Allow me to briefly explain.

In mid-October, I was diagnosed with a tumor on my kidney that ended up being cancerous. Long story short - On November 18, surgeons removed part of my kidney and a rib. They think they got all the cancer, though I'll have to undergo CT scans for the rest of my life to keep an eye on things.

So let's get back to business, shall we? There's much to be done.
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? 

As I continue to digest the epic awesomeness that was the Credit Union Water Cooler Symposium (CUWCS), I’d like to use Maya Bourdeau's discussion as a springboard to address a larger issue that I’ve seen around the credit union world. During Maya’s fascinating presentation on how credit unions could better market and advertise, she mentioned two things about which I'd like to comment.

First, and I’ll not dwell on this since I mentioned this in my previous post, Maya said that potential members need a compelling reason to do business with us. I couldn’t agree more. That said, I’m going to quickly provide you some reasons we seem to use a whole lot that I don’t find very compelling at all.

  1. We’re not a big, bad bank. (More on this below)
  2. We are a not-for-profit community cooperative that reports to its members rather than a board  of stockholders. This is an accurate statement, to be sure, but it fails to connect and resonate with someone who hears it. What does it mean for them and their money? It’s far too vague and abstract a statement to have a real impact.
  3. We offer better service than banks. (More on this below)

Second, Maya delivered the news that outright bank bashing wasn’t the best selling point for us. I wanted to stand and applaud when she said that. You see, here’s the thing. Upon entering the credit union world over a year ago now, I was bombarded from all sides with what sounded like canned credit union propaganda. It was rhetoric of the nature I’d heard in political campaigns as far back as I can remember. And I’ve got to say – and I hope I don’t infuriate too many of you with this statement – a lot of what was said seems to be a bit disingenuous and impossible to verify at best, and downright dishonest at worst. Like these statements, for example:

  1. Banks are big and bad and don’t care about people (or some variation of this). The problem is that big doesn’t necessarily equate to bad, and I find it hard to believe (read impossible) to believe that banks everywhere are filled with heartless half-humans who want nothing but to swindle hard-working Americans out of their money by charging higher rates, etc. It’s just not the case. I banked with Regions for years before joining the credit union that I work at now, and I can tell you from personal experience that they did an awesome job for my family.
  2. We offer far superior service than that which you’d encounter at a bank. As I said, I was a Regions guy for a good bit, and I’ve got to tell you, they were kind, courteous, professional, helpful, had good online banking options, dropped fees, knew me by name, etc. In short, I’d still recommend them if asked (though that’s not to say I wouldn’t try to compel them to join the credit union tribe). I’m just not sure it’s fair for us to declare so authoritatively that we in the credit union world, across the board, offer better service to our members than banks do to their customers. I’ve heard that countless times, but it strikes me as entirely too general a statement.
  3. Banks only care about the stockholders. Come on. Really? Do you think most bank branch personnel give two shekels about the stockholders in their organization? I don’t think so. I think they, like us, just want to do a really great job helping people with their financial needs.

So listen -- I think we in the credit union world can be, and ought to be, and indeed very often are, the better option for individuals and families looking at where to bank. I think there are several pretty compelling and specific reasons for that. My challenge for us in the credit union tribe is this: Let’s provide them with those compelling reasons to join us. And let’s leave the outright bank-bashing nonsense behind.