Finding The Right Path To The Top Of Mission Mountain

There's a fine line between believing passionately in our mission and drinking too much of our own Kool-Aid. True in all businesses everywhere, the nature of our credit union mission makes us more susceptible than most to finding ourselves on the wrong side of that fine line.

I've been a CUSO CEO. I've worked for a league, a corporate, served as the national NYIB chairman, am a charter Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE), and I've served on CUNA national committees.

One part of my practice as an independent consultant and speaker for 20 years has been serving credit union organizations. Another part has given me experience working with Fortune 500 companies, representing a broad span of industries, in over a dozen countries on five continents.

Here's what I see:

Size does matter, in all businesses. But, it's never a competitive panacea. Too many of us are obsessed solely with both ends of this continuum: "Our only focus is merge-to-huge," and "We can only serve our members as a tiny, local independent."

Most of us "get it"-"no margin; no mission." But we continue to search for the balance between being true to our cooperative values, and creating capacity to deliver a market-beating value proposition within the larger financial services industry. Too many of us approach this search as if these were competing forces. They are not.

An Unhealthy View

As CUs, especially in North America, we tend to look inward into our own house to an unhealthy degree. All businesses do this naturally, but the tendency is exacerbated by the conviction of uniqueness within our movement. We need more leaders spending more time looking OUT the window to see what we can learn from the big, wide world.

Our lobbying efforts are legitimate, good, valuable, and must be continued and supported. They will not, by themselves, ensure our future success, if we don't effectively address these first three issues.

I was musing on this idea of needing to find more routes to the top of the "mission mountain" on a recent trip, when I happened to come across the April 10th issue of Canadian Business magazine (Canada's dominant business publication). Vancity Credit Union was ranked as the top workplace in the country. Not in financial services, not in any special category; No. 1 among ALL employers in Canada, period. (Using a globally recognized scoring mechanism).

I called CEO Dave Mowat, and asked him what he sees (that others may overlook) that allowed Vancity get to the "top" of the mountain. And make no mistake, at $11.8 billion, 340,000 members, 50 branches, 2000-plus employees-all working together, Vancity knows about being "on top."

"Unless we are able to establish how we are different, provide a different value proposition for our members, we will not be successful," he told me.

Vancity does a number of things "right," as most credit unions do. They've also gotten into the habit of doing some things that very few do well, if at all.

Some of their success is superb tactical execution, but it all starts with a clear picture of the path they will travel up the mountain, and the scope of the horizon they're willing to scan to find that path.

They've turned to investment brokers to examine and benchmark the building of powerful personal relationships, and to the cell phone industry for tutoring on the subject of rate plans and bundled services.

Some of the best ideas I've shared with credit unions, I learned working with other industries. Using the power of personal stories to accelerate change and enhance decision making was field-proven in a manufacturing plant in the southern U.S. Great mechanisms for instilling self-confidence in entry level staff came from the hospitality industry in Australia. Practices, products, and processes from a wide variety of places can help each CU find its own alternate route to the top.

Vancity's CEO is proud to say, "Everyone who works here is encouraged to be a consummate copier." No, they haven't become clones of other financial institutions or industries. They widen their horizons searching for new ideas, different approaches. They've visited the Bank of America's Innovation Center, the UK's Co-op Bank, Washington Mutual Bank in the U.S., the cooperative Robobank in Holland. Many credit union folks need to get out more, or at least spend more time with those who do.

Vancity also has the "size matters" issue in perspective.

They are big, but Mr. Mowat was quick to tell me, "We spend every day trying to act as SMALL as we can when it comes to our (interaction with) members." Each branch is encouraged to be "the only branch" in terms of their value proposition for their members and their community involvement-small, personable, involved.

View From The Other End

At the other end of the continuum, Vancity uses its considerable size and clout to ensure their processes and operations are efficient, effective, and transparent to their members.

It seems to me, the key is the sequence of these dual priorities. If we don't keep the first focus on the "soft," small, individual relationships, no one cares how large our back office systems integration project is.

A foundation step to member relations is an environment in which the staff thrives. Vancity execs invest substantial time in meetings in the branches, focusing on "...everyone understanding what the strategy is and buying into it." The culture creates the relationships that allow them to leverage their size.

I would suggest, as mergers help to create the size we need for efficiency, we recognize building cultures that preserve our unique values is something we do best ourselves. The mechanics of system and process integration can be done by others; defining what it means to be part of a credit union, and how we make that tangible to each member is the primary job of credit union leadership.

External horizons. Internal ownership. Valuable relationships, first. Backoffice efficiencies leveraging them. A relentless focus on culture to make it all work. Vancity found another road to the top of the "mission mountain." If enough wise executive teams choose to use some of these same sign-posts to chart their own route, the mountaintop will become a crowded place; our mission will be going strong decades from now!

Susan Luke, CSP, CUDE is a "corporate mythologist" and leadership consultant. Her client list runs from large to small credit unions, state and national CU associations, as well as Coca Cola to Kerr-McGee Corporation. Ms. Luke assists CUs in helping them "use the power of myths, legends, and storytelling to accelerate the execution of corporate transitions." She can be reached at Susan<at>SusanLuke.com or 1-888-228-1738.

What do you think? Reader input is encouraged to Lisa Freeman at lfreeman<at>cujournal.com.