Five steps to find what’s missing from your strategy

My dedication to running started many years ago. In my early days of practicing with the cross-country team, maintaining my pace for 20 minutes seemed daunting. Eventually, I found a sweet spot of 40-minute runs that lasted into my early 20’s. I ran my first 10-mile race, and when I finished, I thought, “If I can run 10 miles, certainly I can run 13.1.” I ran my first half-marathon, and when I finished, I thought, “If I can run 13.1, surely I can run 26.2.” After my first marathon, I thought, “Maybe I could qualify for Boston.” On a sunny fall day in Hartford, Connecticut, with a 1980s live version of the Grateful Dead’s “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” playing on repeat in my ears, I qualified for Boston. In April of the following year, I finished the Boston Marathon.

I recently learned about a type of ultra-marathon that blows my mind. It’s called the “Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra World Championship.” Here’s how it works: Racers have an hour to run 4.166667 miles. They can stop and rest if they finish the 4.166667 miles in under an hour. When the next hour starts, they run another 4.166667 miles. This continues until there is only one person left running.

Having completed several marathons, what I can hardly imagine is Harvey Lewis’ story. Lewis is the 2023 winner of Backyard, who won this year’s race after a record-breaking 108 hours and 450 miles of running. That achievement equates to running more than 17 times more than a marathon. My mind nearly melts to imagine the boldness, grit, determination, endurance, and dreaming it takes to bring that to life.

The fall season, among its many gifts, provides the best running weather, and it’s also a time when many of us still have strategic touchpoints or strategy sessions. After all, most leaders realize that in a world that changes as quickly as ours, we must treat strategy iteratively. As we reflect on our strategies as credit unions and consider either a strategy refresh, a strategy iteration, or even a new strategic plan, I encourage us to challenge ourselves to channel Harvey Lewis. Let’s become even more determined. Let’s use that determination to dream more boldly. We must.

With all that we must consider and the many economic, demographic, and regulatory pressures we feel, you may wonder, “Why do determination and dreaming matter so much?” The data drives us here. According to Harvard Business Review’s “To Lead, Create a Shared Vision” by Kouzes and Posner, being forward-looking is the second-highest requirement working people have of a leader. In fact, “among respondents holding more-senior roles in organizations, the percentage was even greater, at 88%.”

I ran my first marathon in Chicago. I trained. I worked hard to prepare. My vision stepping into that race was to finish my first marathon. That might have been an appropriate vision. By the time my goal became qualifying for Boston, my dream was sharper, and the outcomes I sought to achieve were more explicit. I could imagine starting the race with elite athletes. I could hear the pounding of feet on the course as I ran alongside some of the best runners in the world. I could feel the sense of accomplishment surging through my body as I crossed the finish line on Boylston Street. Seeing that vision guided me through tough disappointment when I ran full races in Detroit, Baltimore, and Nashville with non-qualifying times. When I started the race in Hartford, my vision for qualifying was clear, and my race plan, fueled by determination, urged me forward.

The coming year promises enormous challenges. Inflation continues to put pressure on Americans to afford daily life. The rising interest rate environment shifts the burdens within our organizations as many credit unions look to solve liquidity constraints. Many of our organizations must move more rapidly, elevate innovation as a competency, and invest in our product offerings and technology. These efforts need urgent infusions of time and resources. We remain in a war for talent as the very best leaders have more choices than ever and demand a different kind of future workplace. The pace of change accelerates daily. Keeping up with that change while we deliver daily on the promises we make to our members keeps us shifting between execution and strategic thought.

In challenging times and a highly regulated environment, it may seem like the best time to use more caution, slow down, and chart a conservative approach to strategy. This is what McKinsey & Company describes as a “defense-only posture” in their piece by Birshan, Seth, and Sternfels entitled, “Strategic Courage in an Age of Volatility.” They go on to say that the “best leaders and companies are ambidextrous: prudent about managing the downside while aggressively pursuing the upside. These leaders are thinking about the next decade, not the next month. Many are spurring their organizations to rethink opportunities and reset the strategic game board in light of the current volatility.”

As our credit unions’ strategies come to life for 2024 and beyond, what might it take to be bolder, more determined, and dream bigger? Here are five suggestions:

  1. Encourage the big thinkers and stop the “yeah, but.” How we respond to big ideas has everything to do with how many big ideas we will hear. You may hear audacity. You may see risk. You may not know if a big idea is a good idea. That’s okay. Since not every big idea will work, innovation is a numbers game. What if you shifted from “yeah, but” to “tell me more?”
  2. Paint a picture of the vibrancy of the future. I don’t encourage wordsmithing in a group setting. And words matter. As you look at your vision and purpose, what do you feel? These statements must be memorable, crisp, and inspiring. They should also scare you a little. The clearer that potential future becomes, the more ready the team will be to put in the hard work to bring it to fruition.
  3. Keep the brainfood coming. Since strategy must be iterative, chart the course of the coming year with moments to learn and keep learning. The more information we have about what impacts our organizations and shapes the communities we serve, the better equipped we become to challenge our assumptions and create a strategy that readies us for the future as we springboard from our past. Consider how you might learn from new sources regularly to expand what’s possible.
  4. Feel the fear. Crafting a bold strategy should leave our palms sweaty. Shaping a future that might never have existed and charting a path that veers from the competition requires what my grandmother described as “stones at the base of our spines.” To show the steely confidence our teams need, we also may need to acknowledge the trepidation that naturally comes with novel thought.
  5. Keep investing in the team. A diverse team that leans into strategy with differing viewpoints, perspectives, and ideas will challenge one another. This same team must support one another through the bumps and failures that will come when a bold strategy is activated. Only some things will work. Being open to failure within a framework and depending on one another through a leadership charter will ensure stronger success and execution pointed at desired outcomes.

Credit unions were built to solve many of the challenges humans face today. We should be the very best choice for Americans as they bring to life their impossible dreams. To do so, we must dream boldly. We must be determined to bring daring new approaches to life. We must keep strategizing as the world changes and use novel times as a moment to inspire change. I imagine a world where our growth is exponential and our market share so remarkable that someone will write about it with the awe I hold today for running 108 hours. Let’s make it happen starting with our 2023 strategic conversations: Huzzah, credit union leaders.

Tansley Stearns

Tansley Stearns

Tansley Stearns is the president & ceo at Community Financial Credit Union. “No” is not a word in Tansley’s vocabulary. If there is an opportunity to bolster Community Financial Credit ... Web: Details