Implementing a successful strategic plan involves a multi-level approach

Connecting the dots between drafting the plan and successful results

Credit unions continue to address the challenges posed by an ever-changing marketplace, economic and regulatory uncertainty, and shifting member service expectations. As a result, having a clearly defined strategy for setting goals, focusing resources and measuring outcomes is essential. Regardless of whether a credit union is in an acquisition mode; is preparing to sell; or simply implementing new programs and services to position itself as the primary financial services provider for its members, its long-term success depends on the focus it places on implementing a well-thought-out strategic plan, based on input from all stakeholders.

Unfortunately, too many credit union leaders still adhere to the belief that strategic decisions are developed based on the 30,000-foot perspective of the corner office and board room. And while it is imperative for management and the board to be on the same page regarding the overall direction the credit union will take going forward, effective strategic planning involves much more than an upper management point-of-view. This can be challenging in a culture where feedback and opinion sharing are not encouraged or where leadership tends to overlook how their decisions affect others.

For instance, a well-intentioned strategic planning process can turn into a wasted exercise when leadership develops a plan that is overloaded with new initiatives that don’t take into account the existing employee workload. Management rolls out yet another completed plan, presents the mission, vision and values to the staff, and expects everyone to be on-board and psyched to begin implementing it; regardless of how well current initiatives are working or how new assignments will affect staff morale.

Too often, once such a plan has been presented, staff members return to their everyday challenges – which can include member service issues, examiners, auditors, training on new products and processes. They soon lose sight of the big picture view that may lack any relevance to what services credit union members actually prefer or what resources are required to meet those needs. Before you know it, the whole process is forgotten, morale worsens and staff members lose confidence in management’s ability to lead the organization.

The ABCs of an effective strategic plan

In reality, an effective strategic plan has no more than three major strategic initiatives and the planning process includes the perspectives of staff at every level of the organization – tellers, member service representatives, lenders and operations staff – who are tasked with the everyday responsibility of implementing the proposed actions and changes. While not everyone will necessarily provide input of a strategic nature, the tactical ideas shared by those on the front line can provide valuable insight relative to operational realities, member needs and any procedural inefficiencies that need to be addressed.

In order to jump start staff involvement in the strategic planning process, management should create an initial communications outline that:

  • shares the credit union’s vision, mission and values;
  • gathers staff input regarding challenges and opportunities for improvement;
  • explains the role each staff member plays in making the credit union successful; and
  • defines specific, measurable steps for employees to complete in relation to the plan.

Once implementation begins, each strategic initiative should be given an owner who will take responsibility for moving it to completion. Throughout the process, effective use of project management tools can help to identify bottlenecks and help to re-direct project efforts when necessary.

Keep in mind that the staff will see the process through a different lens than management. Check often to see if everyone is fully engaged in the process and committed to the plan. Is there a sense of accomplishment or is energy being drained from the workforce? If nothing is changing and the leadership continues to overlook issues that impede improvements from being made, the staff will lose interest, success benchmarks will be missed and management will lose credibility.

In addition to face-to-face communication, it is important to have survey tools in place that enable management to determine how employees are reacting to the changes that are affecting the workplace, and ultimately whether or not members are experiencing an improved service experience.

Creating emotional ownership to support organizational improvements

Developing the type of culture where employees feel that their opinions are valued creates an emotional connection between their efforts and the resulting benefits for the organization. When people feel that emotional “ownership,” they are more likely to work harder to ensure that goals are met and they are more alert to additional ways that enable the institution to deliver better results and greater value to its members.

And let’s face it; there are no limits on good ideas. When leaders let go of their pride of ownership regarding what actions are implemented within the organization, they create an environment of continuous improvement. Once staff members realize that leadership listens to their opinions and implements good ideas – regardless of the source – they feel more connected and valued, and are much more focused on making sure that new initiatives succeed.

Measuring momentum and results

At regular intervals, management should convene the staff to share examples of how the plan is progressing and to acknowledge the important role everyone is playing to help the credit union reach its strategic goals. For a plan that encompasses a three-to-five-year period, quarterly evaluations allow for adjustments or updates to the plan. This can be especially beneficial if an action is not getting the anticipated results or in the event of new regulations, mergers and acquisition opportunities or other unforeseen circumstances.

Also, at least once a year management should take the initiative to gather feedback on how well they have kept their promises, managed the planning process and supported the efforts of staff in moving the organization forward. Not only does this serve as a good way to close the loop on the current year, it strengthens the sense of teamwork and leads to a higher level of member care. Once your people connect the dots, there will be less wasted effort, improved focus and morale, and you just might create the level of service that truly sets your organization apart from the crowd. In other words, a financial institution where people want to work and do business.