unCUlturers: musings on organizational culture & development (and stuff about credit unions too)
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.

Well, I'm back from the 2010 Credit Union Water Cooler Symposium. I'll have plenty to say about the experience over the coming days and weeks, and my gut tells me the Symposium is only the beginning of even larger conversations that will undoubtedly take place around the credit union world. I'm pretty stoked, and hope to engage many of my newfound colleagues here on my blog. CU heretics, it was good to be with you. Let's get started making a difference.

More to come...
Seth Godin does a masterful job developing this idea in his fantastic book Linchpin. The sooner you read that book and understand this idea, the better.

In fact, I'm going to stop writing this post so you can get off your computer, go read it, and adjust your mindset accordingly.
"Business decisions."

What does that even mean?

Granted, sometimes it's a legitimate, albeit cold, way of saying something had to be done for the good of the business. 

Other times, however, the "business decision" verbiage is employed to provide a sort of mental buffer for those making the decisions. ("It's not personal; it's business.") You see, rarely do those "business decisions" happen in a vacuum. Almost without fail those business decisions end up having a tremendous personal impact on individuals within, and even outside, that organization.

Organizations would do well to resist the urge to insulate themselves from thoughts of how their decisions are affecting the people within the organization. It's too easy, I think, for organizations to simply say something is a business decision and then go on about their day, not giving a second thought to how that business decision is affecting people, their thoughts, their families, their creativity, their motivation, their ability to function at a high level.

"Business decisions" are rarely just that. They have a deep personal impact, and we'd do well as organizations to give that impact proper consideration.
There was a soda brand a few years back that labeled itself the "uncola." It wanted to be different. It wanted to be better.

Southwest Airlines also appears to get it. They've taken concrete steps to establish a culture altogether different and unique. They've embraced the idea of being silly, odd, even irreverent. Their corporate culture is unlike any other out there. They've built an unculture. They know who they are organizationally, and aren't afraid to let the world know that they're different, countercultural, counterintuitive, etc. They're glad to be the unculture.

And don't think for a second that it doesn't matter. If you don't think that type of attitude and cultural climate have a positive effect on both their employees and their bottom line, you're kidding yourself. You know those silly commercials on TV that show bag handlers ripping open their shirts to display the words "Bags fly free" on their chests? Yeah, those are all actual Southwest employees. When asked why they chose not to hire actors for the commercial, Southwest's response was basically something like "Well, we didn't really think actors could capture the spirit, passion, and attitude of our employees." You think choosing the unculture just amounts to wanting to be silly? Think again. Southwest is full of passionate, engaged employees.

And lest you think this is all just a bunch of touchy-feely nonsense, I should mention that this unculture is one of reasons that Southwest is now widely regarded as the most successful and consistently profitable airlines out there right now. Even through the economic downturn they've managed to be innovative and progressive, attracting top talent from around the nation and world.

But isn't cultivating an unculture risky? Sure it is. It's messier. Things don't always fit into nice little boxes like you'd like. But organizations that understand that their culture can be a huge competitive advantage, both in the consumer and employee markets, will actively cultivate a healthy, unique culture. They'll cultivate an unculture.

Am I saying that every organization out there needs to be just like Southwest? No, of course not. That would kind of defeat the purpose. It's OK not to be like everyone else, or anyone else for that matter. It's OK to be different. It's OK not to be just like every other soda brand. It's OK not to be just like every other airline. It's OK not to be just like every other financial institution. It's OK not to be just like every other non-profit. It's OK not to be just like every other church. 

So figure out who you are as an organization, and who you want to be. Then take active steps to build that culture. Be bold. Be courageous. Be innnovative. Develop a distinct organizational and cultural identity. Then celebrate and cultivate that culture. The effects will be seen in your bottom line for sure, but as a byproduct of more passionate, engaged employees.
No, that's not a misspelling, and yes, I realize it's not an actual word. But it's exactly what a lot of organizations need.

Countless organizations out there right now, while perhaps even appearing healthy and stable to those on the outside looking in, are dying on the inside. Morale is down. Infighting and politics are on the rise. Trust is lacking. Inefficiency isn't. In short, it's a mess.

So what's to be done? Well, that would certainly depend on the group or organization, and what the specific symptoms are, but I think there's at least one common denominator. These organizations need leaders, whether they have the fancy title or not, to step into the fray and become initiators of change.

When those leaders--again, whether they have a title or not--begin to shift together, use their influence together, talk together, dream together, strategize together, and, well, you get the idea; when those things happen, a group or organization will start to see change. And it will be the best kind of change, because it's organic, felt-in-the-heart change, not some overwrought corporate mandate that comes down from above. 

So if you're a leader within a group or organization, whether officially recognized as one or not, start the shift. Lead. Encourage others to do the same. Get together with them. Talk about it. Recruit others to join you. Make a difference.

It's leadershift.
Too many organizations of all types (companies, churches, non-profits, etc) are unwittingly, or perhaps even "wittingly," cultivating a pretty crappy culture within which their teams and people are required to function. And I say hey, if you're going to create such an environment, at least go all out. (I say this with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek.)

Here's one thing you can do to ensure your organization's culture is crappy. If you're in leadership, cover all of your mistakes. I mean that. Every last one of them. It's crucial to your survival that the team or organization you lead thinks you're flawless. I mean, think of the consequences if anyone within your organization got wind of the fact that you're a human being that makes an occasional mistake. That would border on cataclysmic, would it not?

So whatever takes, don't admit mistakes, don't be vulnerable and open with your team, group, or organization, and no matter what you do, do not--I repeat, do not--let anyone know you make mistakes. There's always someone else to blame, after all.
...Then I'm afraid you're likely missing some opportunities. Too often people wait on this or that. They wait for approval from everyone they know before they act. They wait for the timing to be perfect before trying something. They want to be sure what they do won't rock the boat. Or anyone else's boat for that matter.

If there's something you want to try, try it. If there's something you want to create, create it. If there's a problem you want to solve, try to solve it. Quit succumbing to to the pressure to fit in, fly under the radar, and be representative of the status quo.
If you’ve been around peewee league soccer, there are a few things you know. You know that there is absolutely no strategy involved whatsoever. None. Zero. Zip. Nada.

You also know that it’s “just for fun,” or something. And really, it is. As parents, we show up, put out some lawn chairs, and watch a clump of children swarm the ball wherever it goes on the field (and sometimes off). 

These days, a lot of leagues have even stopped keeping track of score altogether, choosing instead to acknowledge everyone for participating. At the end of the year, children nationwide are given certificates of “participation.” 

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have a huge problem with that. But if I’m honest (and if you are too), you often find yourself cringing a little bit. You think things like: If we don’t keep score, what’s the point of playing? Doesn’t my kid need to know how to both win and lose the right way? I want my kid to excel, not just be content to participate! And so it goes…

Well here’s the thing. The same thing applies to your professional (and personal) life. As you progress through life’s various stages, are you really interested in merely “participating”? It’s like someone saying, “Hey, great job. You lived and breathed.” The sad reality is the corporate world, society, churches, etc, are filled with these type folks. Is that really what you want?

No, I want something more than that, and I hope you do too. I hope you’re interested in far more than a certificate of participation. I hope you’re interested in far more than watching others excel. I hope you take what you do really personally, and determine to do what it takes to be among the best in your field. Take risks, be creative, work hard, learn well, and for Pete’s sake, don’t just participate.




I’m just a bank teller. I’m just an customer service rep. I’m just a trainer. I’m just a new hire. I’m just a receptionist. I’m just a clerk. I’m just one executive. I’m just one manager.

If you repeat things like that long enough, they may become true.

Sometimes I really hate the word just. I’ve been trying to pin down exactly why I detest it so much in some instances, and I think it has something to do with what people mean when they employ the word.

Think about the examples above. If someone says they’re just a customer service rep, what are they actually saying? What they often mean is that there’s something they can’t do, initiative they can’t take, dreams they can’t accomplish, change they can’t create, or goals they can’t attain. There’s usually a whole lot of can’t behind the word just.

I hate the word because it downplays the potential any given individual has. Now, do I mean that if people believe or want something strongly enough that they can always get or do it? No. Of course not. I really wanted to be Superman when I was a kid, but you’ll notice that the outfit I’m wearing today is more Clark Kent than Superman.  A tie isn’t nearly as fun as a cape, by the way.

But now that I’ve gotten that disclaimer out of the way, I hope you’ll understand this: when you say you’re just this or that, it’s really like you’re taking your own legs out from underneath you. Instead of being an empowered, creative, positive, motivated individual, you’ve reduced yourself to being just something (whatever that happens to be).

So don’t fall for it. Don’t fall into the mental trap that so many fall into. You’re not just your position. You’re an integral part of your organization. You’re an individual with goals, dreams, abilities, and ideas. You can be a motivated, empowered, positive, valuable member of the team if you just decide to put forth the effort and work it takes to be those things. 

Don’t settle for just.