Is your culture worth keeping?

Let’s pause and think about an area of the credit union movement that can be as inconspicuous as the air we breathe, and sometimes is discussed even less. It is like being a fish in water – we don’t know what surrounds us until there is disruptive change. I’m talking about the collective credit union culture. Whether we talk openly about it or not, our members have a sense of our culture. Our employees and new hires respond instinctively to it.

It is much easier to just show up at work every day and do a job, think about the newest member promotion, forecast interest rates, or debate what new regulation under the new administration might look like. Change management feels like it belongs in another industry sometimes.

Maybe your credit union’s ROA is strong, and the examiners are happy so organizational culture isn’t high on the priority list. The credit union executive team probably talks about mission and vision once a year at a strategic planning, but the day to day operations are running smoothly. Why think intentionally about your culture? If isn’t broken, don’t fix it, right? The real question to ask is whether your credit union’s culture connects to mission.  If it does not, it’s broken. Your mission is to serve your community of members. Your credit union’s culture is the undercurrent that runs throughout the organization. It is the unspoken impression your members get when they walk in the door. Your borrowers can tell if your employees feel empowered or if they feel bored. The credit union might be running relatively smoothly but it may not have truly reached its own potential.  Growth strategies beyond acquisitions and indirect lending are possible.

Organizational change can be hard – but maybe it is not as hard as it appears. Here is a simple, easily relatable example of how cultural change happens. Imagine the credit union has no dress code. Employees come to work dressed neatly, but wearing jeans or whatever apparel makes them comfortable. Now imagine the board of directors decides to implement a dress code policy requiring business professional clothing every day. Everyone would immediately adjust their behavior to a level that matches the new requirements. Interactions would likely immediately become more formal and businesslike. To change a culture, a leader simply begins to change elements of the system so that people respond differently.

In Chicago, we have begun to see a higher frequency of individuals that move money from their large bank to the credit union because they believe in what credit unions are supposed to stand for. Despite differences in political views, we work for credit unions because in most cases we believe in what credit unions stand for as well. Many members CHOOSE cooperatives because they believe in the idea of ownership by the people. These individuals believe their choices have the potential to create change and support their own community.

We cannot forget as an industry that if our employees are members, they are also owners in our institution. If this is the case, we have a responsibility to treat them as such and to empower and develop them. We cannot forget that we are an ALTERNATIVE to banks. Our goal is not to mimic banks. Credit unions have done revolutionary work across the country. Credit unions have developed affordable small dollar loan programs, hosted Individual Development Accounts in partnership with non-profits, provided products to immigrants, operated 501c3s that support financial literacy and workforce development programs, and partnered with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs. Some of our work is the best of the best. My credit union launched a product a year ago called the GAP LP – a loan product marketed to the transgender community designed to help with associated costs of gender affirming procedures. We received both support and criticism inside the industry. We launched the product to be intentionally inclusive of those we serve. We certainly would have provided a loan to a transgender individual who applied for a loan with one of our traditional products, but we chose to market our products in a way that reflects an awareness of the challenges and barriers faced by this segment of our community.

Much more importantly and broadly I am proud of credit unions when we get calls from other credit unions asking how to implement a similar product well. I am sad when I see credit unions dismiss this as unimportant, irrelevant, or as a marketing stunt. We must remember that when we make a real difference for those local to us, we have the potential to make a larger impact as we develop best practices and industry standards. We have an opportunity to model excellent impact or we have the alternative of mimicking and ultimately competing with large banks. Perhaps what we do locally will be replicated in the industry, or maybe it won’t. Regardless, our biggest concern should be serving our own community and consumers. If we lose sight of that, then our culture is not worth keeping.

Sarah Marshall

Sarah Marshall

Sarah Marshall is the CEO of North Side Community Federal Credit Union, a small asset size CDFI credit union in Chicago, IL. At North Side, she has successfully launched new ... Web: www.northsidecu.org Details

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