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."


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?
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. 

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...