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From Zero Executives To 8,000-Plus, & Counting

It's hard to believe, but it wasn't that long ago that the idea of a "credit union executive" would draw a chuckle.

For a long time the title "president" of a credit union was reserved for the board chairman, who often was all but managing the institution, too. Eventually, larger credit unions, those that had maybe a few-hundred-thousand dollars in assets, hired "managers," often part-timers pulling in a few extra bucks in the evenings after clocking out of their primary job as an accountant at the sponsor company.

The idea anyone would think of themselves as an "executive" in an "industry" where those rarified credit unions with a million dollars in assets were once referred to as the "Cadillac Club" was pretty much unthinkable for a good deal of CU history in the U.S.

So it shouldn't be a big surprise that when the Credit Union Executives Society was founded in 1962 it went by the name "CUES Managers Society" and was a department of CUNA in which the CUES stood for Credit Union Executive Services. This year marks the 50th anniversary of CUES and it's come a long way since those early days. No one is surprised anymore that the "E" in CUES stands for executive; indeed, it's likely the opposite would be true. But that "E" has also come to represent something else: education.

Back To School Time
CUES has found its focus, something that hasn't always been true. When I first started covering credit unions as a reporter, I often wondered where exactly CUES fit in. Its meetings were similar to those of CUNA and NAFCU, yet the group stressed it was not a trade association. It had groups within the group made up of CU marketers and vendors, along with another group of volunteers that it still serves. But if the game were CUES Clues, I will admit I didn't have one.

Much of that changed with the hiring of Fred Johnson as its president/CEO in 1989.

"I think we are all about education," says Johnson now. "The education of CEOs, directors and future credit union leaders. Continuing education is the only growth area among universities right now. You see a Continuing Education building on every campus. Look at our business today and all the regulations there are versus when I started. We are staying true to our mission."

It may be that all of us can't wait to get out of school, yet it isn't long before you're in the workforce and you realize it's back-to-school time. CUES may be a good case in point; when Johnson joined the organization it had 3,000 members. Today, it has more than 8,000 (growth in CU assets certainly hasn't hurt, either).

"The biggest change I've seen since I've been here is technology. We had 27 staff when I began, today we have 40. Our revenue is up three times," Johnson said. "It's because of technology; it allows us to deliver more products online."

Using a phrase often heard by presenters at CUES' and other conferences, Johnson believes its growth is also because "I think we have a value proposition that people like."

A key in that value proposition, according to Johnson, is its CEO Institute, a three-year program that includes terms at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, and the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. Graduates earn a CCUE (Certified Credit Union Executive) designation after their names.

Johnson has a long career in education, primarily in the military. A Vietnam veteran, Johnson also taught at West Point (and was on the board of the credit union there).

"When it comes to that value proposition, people will say, 'What is the deliverable?'" Johnson noted. "When you leave that seminar, what do you take with you? Did it make a difference in your life?"

There is an age-old debate over whether leadership can be taught and, not surprisingly since he taught a course on leadership, Johnson believes the answer is yes. "We believed at the academy that you can be born with certain skills, but you can also be taught to be a better leader."

CUES has a segment on individual leadership that is taught at the Darden School. Johnson shared one fundamental lesson: "A common problem in organizations is communication. What are the expectations of the person saying it, and what are the expectations of the person hearing it?"

Fewer CUs, Fewer Corner Offices
I asked Johnson if part of CUES' growth wasn't being driven by the fact that the growing number of executives in CUs is now fighting for a shrinking number of CEO jobs.

"You might be surprised to know how many people don't want the CEO's job," said Johnson. "They might say they do to put a good face on it. But what are you willing to sacrifice and do to get into position for that job? I had one person say to me once, 'I knew everything about this credit union as the COO, but I knew nothing about the CEO job when I got into it."

Johnson plans to retire at the end of 2012. He expects CUES will go on long after him.

"Our goal is to continue to develop that value proposition. We will continue to be careful about who we partner with and that they share our vision. We are a small organization and will never be big, but I think we have a great future. I think credit unions will be around for a long time."

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.

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