Spend as much time with credit union boards and management teams as I do and you’ll learn that far too many credit union leaders spend too much time focused on the “thin” operational things and not enough time and thought on the “thick” strategic things.
The thick important things are the mission, vision, and values that define us. The thick is the bold strategies that inspire us to move forward and motivate meaningful engagement. It’s a fuller understanding of how the world is changing around us, and a constant desire to evolve, adapt, change, grow, and affect others in a meaningful way.
The thin, less-important things are operational and tactical. The business we’re in requires a high degree of compliance and exactness, whether it’s timely reporting to examiners, accurate transactions for members, or monitoring internal controls. These things are all very important. However, if we’re not careful, these operational details can easily become all that we regularly focus on, and we become trapped in the thick of thin things.
It’s usually easy to spot credit unions trapped in the thin of things. Growth and revenue are weaker at these credit unions. Culturally, they reward good operational results, but don’t reward new ideas or risk-taking at the same level. Ask these leaders where they are headed and they give you a capital, asset, or revenue ratio. It’s sad when the “people helping people” movement is defined first by numbers and ratios. They are thin on strategic plans and thick with every possible operational procedure you can imagine. They are compliant – meaning the only rules they follow are the ones spelled out in a rule or regulation or based on whatever the broader credit union herd is grazing on at the moment (yes, I just compared some credit unions to a herd of sheep). It’s not uncommon to find credit unions that celebrate immaculate exams, audits, and ridiculously low delinquency numbers – all the while, they have failed to keep up with technology, and growth and revenue is weak because they have failed to invest for tomorrow. Review the board minutes or management team minutes of these organizations and you’ll see mention after mention of thin operational issues and very little strategic content. Credit unions must excel both operationally and strategically to survive.
Credit union leadership (board and management) determine the level of strategic thought and action that will occur. Leaders must have the discipline to invest time. For some, it’s easy to drift from strategic to operational – especially if operational is their default comfort zone. Your team will follow your lead and respond to what you recognize and reward.
Once you have your priorities straight, make sure you have the right people in place to handle all (or most) of the operational issues. Having the right people in place and delegating the right things will allow you to spend less time on operational issues and more time on strategic issues. I realize this is challenging for smaller credit unions. However, I believe that even though smaller credit union leaders are forced to spend more time on operational things, it’s possible to carve out extra time for strategic thought and action. I work with a lot of best-practice smaller credit unions with very busy leaders who still make strategic action a priority – even though they are still reviewing loans and dealing with examiners. Ask these credit union leaders where they’re headed and you’re sure to get a meaningful answer, and their credit union’s performance and culture reflect their strategic thinking.
Management and boards can do a better job structuring board meeting agendas. Everything operational that can be moved to a consent agenda should be. Next, move strategic business to the top of the agenda to be sure you don’t run out of time. I’d rather run out of time on the operational items at the end of the meeting. Each short-term and long-term strategy should have goals and milestones that management regularly reports on. Results on these strategies should be the focus of the board conversation – not budget line items that could easily be addressed offline, or waste-of-time conversations explaining why the number of delinquent loans increased from 25 to 27 during the month.
Invest the time in developing the right strategies for your credit union. Spend less time focused on what the credit union down the street is doing and more time looking at the issues that are influencing your members, and the future members you want to attract. You want to anticipate and plan for what their needs will be five years from now, and make sure you are prepared to meet them. Spend as much time considering external opportunities as you do external threats, less time complaining over regulatory uncertainty and more time addressing opportunities to differentiate and evolve.
Why it matters
Strategic Planning for Dummies points out that “a strategic plan is a critical management tool that guides an organization to do a better job because a plan focuses the energy, resources, and time of everyone in the organization in the same direction.” Understanding that is easy; constantly doing it is the hard part. You and your team’s ability to think and act strategically will determine the long-term viability and success of your organization. If you’re not sure where your organization is headed or you feel stuck in the thick of thin things, act now. Even if you have to start small, begin now to make strategic thinking and action a priority.