I was blessed to facilitate forty strategic planning meetings in 2022, and in those sessions spent more time discussing human resource challenges and opportunities than any other topic. For good reason—successful strategies have always begun and ended with people. But times are changing. Credit union leaders find themselves in a very different human resource climate, a climate that’s bending to meet the changing wants and needs of the next generation and higher demand on the leadership’s bench.
By far, the most consistently successful credit union leaders communicate more meaning to their teams.
You may have heard the saying, “every good tree bears good fruit.” It’s true—interact with a good credit union team, and their level of vision and engagement soon becomes obvious. The fruits of highly engaged and motivated teams are wonderful. Not only will you witness the strong growth and revenue indicative of financial success, but you’ll also see their commitment and energy is higher, they have less turnover, and they’re adaptable, innovative, always looking for a better way, and willing to work harder. Member feedback is always positive, and these successful teams are always connected at a deeper level to their broader community (geographic, demographic, associational). Outcomes from high-performing teams include meaningful quality of life for the people they care for (CU staff, members, community).
Examples of how credit union leaders can do more to provide greater meaning for their teams:
- A leader’s job is to connect and communicate their team’s roles within the credit union ideal of “people helping people.” Many credit union leaders will tell you they believe in this ideal, but it takes real work to make it tangible to motivate people to consistently act. With words and examples, great leaders communicate how each person on the team contributes and makes a meaningful difference.
- Identify and preach (if a leader believes it, they will preach it) a noble purpose the team can align with, believe in, and work hard for. For example, many credit union leaders are taking on big community problems like housing or hunger and inspiring their teams to engage and improve the community. They inspire their people with a clear vision of meaningful success. One inspiring example from this year was a credit union team dedicated to ending the racial wealth gap in their community. Believe me when I tell you that team is all in and engaged in pursuing that vision.
- Great leaders inspire people through challenging goals. When a challenging goal is directly connected to an inspiring vision, accomplishing the goal is easier than you might think. I could write a book about small credit union leaders who inspire their teams through very challenging goals. Honestly, it’s the only way things get done. Truly, there are credit unions with ten employees or fewer who are mission- and vision-focused and successfully doing very hard things. They are a wonder! They have fewer resources but reach farther because of their purpose. The best leaders set expectations high. Nothing truly noteworthy is easy. Their vision might not be fully attainable, but the outcomes from a tremendous effort remain inspiring. For example, it’s not likely that a credit union could end the local housing problem overnight in their community. But for some, it might be inspiring to be part of fixing the problem for more people.
- Besides training, smart leaders pump up their people’s confidence so they believe they can win. They create a culture of humble confidence (never arrogant) through intentional acts where people are developed, tested, and recognized. The results can be exponential—just think what a team can do with even 20 percent more team members feeling more confident and willing to pursue big things.
- The best leaders can fire their teams up! These leaders know their people. They know what is important to the individual and the team. They paint a picture of an outcome worth fighting for, then provide the tools and remove obstacles to help along the way. These leaders get their hands dirty and are fully and visibly engaged with their team toward the outcome.
- Leaders we all want to work for tell their people they believe they can do virtually anything. The sky’s the limit. Jim Valvano said, “Every single day, in every walk of life, ordinary people do extraordinary things.” Inspiring leaders personally invite their teams to be part of the “journey.” Leadership is about people, and that means it’s personal. The invite includes listening to understand what’s important, observing whether or not their values align with the mission/vision, and it’s a vote of confidence when the leader invites them on the journey.
Why it matters
If we, as credit union leaders, can’t articulate or convey consistently worthwhile meaning for the people on our team, we are at risk of less engagement and eventually losing our best and brightest. Time, money, and benefits are very important, but without tangible meaning, the work they do for us is just a job. It’s so much more than pay, bonuses, perks, etc.—especially for the new generation who want to be part of something and make a difference.
Being part of credit union teams and working with successful and unmotivated teams over so many years has taught me that what separates mediocre credit unions from top performers is their people’s level of willing engagement. The teams that live and breathe a noble purpose are the highest overall performers and have the most desirable work environments.
Smaller and midsized credit unions will survive. The ones that do will have a thriving culture with a team that consistently performs—because the people on their team want to.