Zen, The art of credit union leadership

It can be exhausting to review a credit union’s to-do list. I’m talking about that long laundry list of everything a credit union team has committed to for the year. It’s interesting to review these lists alongside their owners. All too frequently some items have little to do with the credit union’s key strategic priorities. I see this conflict all the time.

Sometimes there is debate over whether or not something on the list will have a material impact on the organization’s key strategic priorities. In these cases, the potential impact of the debatable action is minimal. Far too many items on far too many to-do lists are low-level operational and compliance-related. Important tasks, but tasks that at the end of the year contribute very little to key strategic priorities such as loan, revenue, and membership growth. It’s frustrating: teams spend the year chasing low-impact initiatives, and end it without any significant impact on loan growth, membership growth, service delivery, or revenue.

My experience is that the most successful credit unions do a better job at prioritizing focus and activities. They know how to say “no” to the right things. These leaders understand that they lack enough resources to do everything, and they want to commit their teams to those activities that will have the greatest impact on their key strategic priorities, such as growth, profitability, and member service. The to-do lists of these teams are shorter, and more focused. True, they may lack some products and services, or some of the latest technological bells and whistles, but they succeed because their team has a clearer focus and more energy to pursue activities that have the greatest opportunity for impact.

Zen leaders create Zen environments

Zen leaders understand how to focus energies and resources to those tasks that best fit the requirement of strategic success. Besides leveraging focus and resources more clearly, this approach avoids a great deal of frustration and dissatisfaction for themselves and their teams.

I call this “Zen leadership” because it emphasizes rigorous self-control, reflection, practice, insight, and commitment to the benefit of the organization and team. The problem is that many of today’s leaders are so focused on that long list of to-dos that they fail to think strategically – above the day-to-day minutiae – and consequently they spend less time developing their people and removing obstacles for their team. The pursuit of Zen credit union leadership includes mastery over conflicting priorities.

Prioritizing means you consistently think strategically, with long-range vision and knowledge of your organization’s highest priorities to see and determine which tasks are more important at each moment. Zen leaders give those tasks more of their attention, energy, and time. They help others focus on what is important at the expense of lower-value activities. Prioritization is about making choices about what to do and what not to do. To prioritize effectively, you need to be able to recognize what is important, as well as to see the difference between urgent and important. Here are a few ideas on how to improve your Zen focus:

Clearly identify strategic priorities. Keep this list high-level and short. This is the organization’s “come hell or high water” list of results that have to be reached. Examples might include profitable loan growth, deeper member relationships, or organic membership growth. Focus the team’s activities on these high-value strategic priorities. These activities should dominate the team’s focus and conversations.

  • Expeditiously finish all the highest-impact, key strategic activities first.
  • Consider the net strategic impact of an item – what’s the worst that could happen if a low-level priority doesn’t get accomplished right away?
  • Ask for specific deadlines and quantify how activities specifically support the agreed-upon key strategic priorities.
  • If you report to multiple leaders and feel unsure how to prioritize, ask the group to decide the order of priority. Zen leadership requires honest assessment and feedback on what the team can realistically accomplish and whether or not something should be pursued.
  • Set aside time to frequently discuss and review progress toward the key strategic priorities. Time should be allocated and used in board meetings and team meetings across the organization to review and focus on key strategic priorities. Otherwise, focus will fade, as people tend to drift back to their operational comfort zones.
  • Hold yourself and others accountable for maintaining a strategic focus and accomplishing those “come hell or high water” commitments first.

If you consistently practice Zen leadership, you just may find Nirvana. What is Nirvana? Spiritually speaking, Nirvana is a state in which suffering has been “extinguished.” Credit union Nirvana exists when your organization is consistently achieving strategic objectives, and team members feel successful, having accomplished more and felt less pressure to spend time chasing an endlessly long, lower-impact to-do list.

Why it matters

There are a lot of credit unions that I deem “safe and stuck.” They’re well-capitalized, but they aren’t growing or generating the earnings they will need to keep up. Unless they change, they will be left behind at some point. The world we operate in is rapidly evolving. Successful credit union leaders have the discipline to focus first on key strategic issues and spend less time hanging onto actions that generate mediocre returns. They have the courage to limit exhaustive to-do lists. They have the courage to say “no” to many things, and find more time to focus on those things that are the most critical to their survival. While many chase long to-do lists, successful leaders chase the strategies that really matter for their members, the credit union, their team, and their community. There’s only so much time. For what will you be known? Focus on that and get after it.