Becoming a High-Performing Credit Union: Considerations for Developing Your Credit Union Strategy in 2024 and Beyond
In today’s dynamic operating landscape, developing a strategic plan to guide your credit union forward is becoming increasingly important—and challenging. The last three years have brought continuous changes that require strategic response, including liquidity issues, personnel shortages, ongoing cybersecurity threats and more. Understanding and adapting your institution’s strategy to reflect these changes is essential.
The recent developments within the financial sector, including those brought on by the March 2023 banking crisis, the pandemic and the fluctuating economy, are important in and of themselves. Even more important, however, is the pace of change. Has your credit union kept up? How do you compare to other financial institutions? Are you able to assess your strategic positioning and shift strategy as circumstances change? These questions highlight the need for credit union leaders to devote appropriate time and resources to evaluating and developing an updated strategy for their institution moving forward.
One of the most common questions posed by credit union leaders when discussing strategy is the topics about which they should strategize. They often spend time wondering what the future will hold in terms of interest rates, inflation and other industry concerns. However, before leaders delve into specific strategic topics, and before there is an attempt to execute a strategy, they must first think about what it means to develop and execute a strategic plan.
When it comes to developing a successful strategy, there are three factors that are seen more often in high-performing credit unions and not as often in credit unions that are under performing. These characteristics tend to indicate higher performance regardless of what the credit union’s strategic objectives or initiatives are. The characteristics include:
High-performing credit unions are organized in a manner that allows them to efficiently gather information, evaluate that information, consider stakeholder input, make a decision and execute that decision.
Think about March 2020. Like just about every organization of any kind, your credit union probably made decisions to change procedures and practices incredibly quickly. You had no choice at that time. You just did it. Now that we’re three plus years removed from that disruption, do you decide and execute with a sense of urgency and importance, or have you slipped back into casual decision-making habits?
High-performing credit unions have embraced the idea that decision making, even for big decisions, doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out process. Credit unions often used to make strategic decisions based on multiple board meeting presentations and discussions over a series of months. Credit unions are now moving to a quicker process designed around committee work and fewer board discussions. This hasn’t diminished the role of the board. If anything, board members who participate in the committee work are more engaged than they were before.
The pace of change is simply too fast in the current environment to allow your credit union’s tradition or some pre-set board meeting schedule to force you to wait to make a strategic move.
High-performing credit unions likely have multiple components to their strategy, including a written strategy document and quantitative metrics against which progress is measured. However, the reason these credit unions are high-performing is not because of these strategic components, but because they consistently embrace their strategy as an integral part of everyday operations.
There is frequently a strong temptation for credit union leaders to meticulously craft a strategy document and store it away on a shelf for occasional admiration. Giving in to this temptation dooms your organization to continue doing what it’s been doing, the way it’s been doing it. Strategic thought is rendered worthless if not converted into strategic action.
High-performing credit unions emphasize the need to change behavior and prioritize relentless day-to-day execution. This includes consistent communication about what they’re trying to do and why. It also includes pointing out what behavior is expected and calling out when that behavior is not happening.
This is not easy—which is why high-performing credit unions stand out from the rest. Which group is your credit union in?
Focus on People
A lot of strategy discussions, and strategic documents, rely heavily on facts and figures. In addition, they are often focused on predicting the future, and attempt to address potential interest rate shifts, recessions and other such concerns.
While high-performing credit unions consider these issues as well, they also build out a strategy that focuses on people. Most often, the people in this context are the credit union’s employees. What impact does this strategy have on employees? To the extent employees must change their behavior, is credit union leadership preparing all personnel for that change? Are they communicating the “why” effectively? Are they making it matter to the individuals who will actually execute the strategy?
This effort must extend beyond distributing a well-developed strategy document or making an announcement at a staff meeting. It must be a consistent part of ongoing communication with all personnel—not just the leadership team. High-performing credit unions celebrate their strategy as something that makes the credit union a great place to work. They involve all internal stakeholders and include strategy elements specifically related to each individual in performance objectives and goals, evaluating all employees against those expectations.
The challenges faced by the financial sector over the past few years have highlighted the need for credit unions to continuously evaluate and ensure their strategies are well equipped to move their institution forward in a high-performing manner. There are certainly many specific strategic topics which credit unions must consider in the current fast-paced and ever-changing environment. However, regardless of your credit union’s specific strategy elements, how you formulate and roll out the strategy is what ultimately determines that strategy’s success.
Jeff Paille is a partner at The Bonadio Group focused on serving credit unions and tax-exempt organizations. He started his career at Bonadio, then spent five years at a multi-billion-dollar credit union, returning to the firm’s audit practice in 2006. This experience informs Jeff’s approach to client service; he sees the service plan from the client’s perspective and expresses financial results in an understandable and meaningful manner to both management personnel and board volunteers. This leads to purposeful strategic discussion and value beyond the audit report in the context of an audit service.