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




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.
Organizations needs leaders. If the first name that popped into your head was someone else’s, you’re already missing the boat. 

You see, it doesn’t really matter what title you hold, what level of education you’ve attained, or even how long you’ve been with your organization. Groups, departments, organizations, teams, churches – they need leaders. They need you.

Now, I’m not saying you have to come up with some novel idea or head a project team or even be charismatic and outgoing. What I’m saying is that we need leaders. What I’m saying is that we need you.

We need ordinary folks who will step up and do the hard things. Do hard things like admitting mistakes, being vulnerable, forgiving past mistakes, and building trust. Do hard things like complaining a little less and finding solutions a little more. 

Do hard things – like really taking ownership of the direction of your organization. Too many of us think we can’t do that. We think it’s someone else’s job. We think it’s only the executives that are in charge of that. Your organization is just as much yours as it is theirs. (And really, the sooner you can stop thinking of it in terms of “yours” or “theirs” the better. Think ours.) Want something to be different? Then as someone told me recently in conversation, you need to be the change you want to see in the organization. 

Do hard things – like actually committing to change something in yourself instead of thinking that only everyone else needs to change. Do hard things like being the first in your group or department to change your behavior and encourage others to do the same. Do hard things like looking for the best in people, even though you’ve been burned before.

As I’ve said to many groups I’ve presented to, it’s about ordinary people doing some simple (but not necessarily easy) things over and over again. Before you know it, you’re leading yourself and others toward a healthier group or organizational culture. 

But if you and I want any of that to happen, we need leaders. We need you.
You can fit in, or you can stand out. You can't have it both ways.

There are scores of people and groups out there who are more than willing to describe for you to a "T" how you're to act/look/think in any given situation. Perhaps they've been there since you were a wee lad or lass, encouraging you to fit in to a given mold.

Think of all the books, scoldings, fringe religious zealots, co-workers, employees, school systems, etc, who took (and take) great pains to establish for you exactly - and often it really is a precise thing - who or what or how you're supposed to be. It can be overwhelming. And paralyzing. What becomes abundantly clear is that we're really good at enforcing the status quo, and we're often fiercely loyal to it.

"This is what a corporate cog...er...individual looks like."

"This is what an executive looks like."

"This is what a Christian looks like."

"This is what an affluent kid looks like."

And so it goes.

But if you fit in too much, you won't do anything. Think of people who do or have done things. Great things. Remarkable things. Things that make a real difference. HIstory is full of such people (Jesus of Nazareth, Ghandi, MLK, etc). Rarely do they "fit" anywhere. They do great things precisely because they're willing to challenge conventional wisdom, think outside the box (though I still loathe that expression), innovate, and be, well, different. Isn't that the very essence of the word extraordinary? Something outside the ordinary?

What groups, churches, organizations, and communities need is just those people, but sadly (though not unpredictably) they're largely missing.
You’ve got to not only be able to see the truth of the reality around you, but also tell that truth to your group or organization. This requires experience, expertise, finesse, and before any of that, a willingness to look for it. 

Lots of folks refuse to acknowledge what they see and know to be true. Some may look around their department at work or their staff at church or their team on the field and know something to be true. Perhaps their department uses a process that has at least two unnecessary and redundant steps (but it was the boss who put it in place). Perhaps their church staff has a pastor far more interested in status than in actually ministering in any meaningful way (outside the pulpit) to the people in the pews. Perhaps their team is stubbornly sticking to a game plan that may have worked previously, but hasn’t for some time now.

It’s not that these folks want to lie to themselves. But they’re certainly in denial.

Often there’s a small group, or even just an individual, who can see the truth; but that group or individual doesn’t want to speak up, because, well, the status quo is awfully comfortable. To say the Emperor is actually naked, after all, could be professional suicide. To question is to be a troublemaker, or so goes the myth you’ve bought into.

Organizations and groups that really get it will seek out someone who can see things for what they are, and further still, will stand up and talk about it. An individual who really gets it will be that person.

There's a certain posture that goes with being an unculturer and a leader. You lean, push, pull, strain, stretch. There's very little of the "wait and see" posture. Because "wait and see" usually means you're just waiting to see what life (as if it's some mystical entity) is going to do to you. That's passivity at best; cowardice at worst.

Instead, look around. Look for opportunities to move, create, initiate, innovate, and lead. Then lean in, push, pull, and exert effort toward those opportunities. 
You simply cannot be afraid to fail. Failure, you see, is really one of the keys to success. If you're not failing, you're not trying things. You're not being innovative. You're not taking risks. You're playing it really safe, which is exactly what "they" want. 

So try things. Have original ideas, and further, share them. Talk about them. Rally others around them. Don't be afraid of rejection. Who really cares if someone doesn't like your idea? It's only after working through scores of bad ideas that you're going to reach that one really, really good one. And it's only through failures that you're going to learn, improve, grow, and stretch yourself.

What am I saying? Here it is -- fail. Fail often. And fail fearlessly.
Teams, groups, organizations, churches, etc, don't need perfect leaders. They need vulnerable ones. They need leaders who have faults and talk openly about them. Faults, after all, are part of our inherent humanity. There are few things more frustrating than following someone who perceives themselves to be flawless. When was the last time you openly discussed a shortcoming you have with, well, anyone? Those on your team? In your group or department at work? On your church staff (or better yet, your parishioners)? Within your organization?  

If you're straining to remember the last time, it's been far too long.