Strategy in the time of coronavirus: The boot that always fits

Mount Evans, Colorado

Living in Colorado brings many benefits. The beauty, diversity, and magnificence of the hiking rises to the top of my list when ranking Colorado’s voluminous gifts. My daughter MacKenzie, 9, and her cousin Jude, 10, have an interest in starting to tackle the fourteeners. According to Wikipedia, “a fourteener is a mountain peak with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet … and Colorado has the most (53) of any single state.” Preparing for hiking a fourteener requires a strategic approach.

When I was running marathons, I always said that, “nearly anything can happen when you pass 20 miles.” No matter how prepared you are, you just never know how your body might react to the incredible distance. Preparation and strategy minimize the chances of experiencing negative possibilities. Like distance running, with hiking, the physical challenges are also real. Beyond the bodily trials, the elements can range from majestic to extremely dangerous. 

As we’ve readied for the kids’ first fourteener, we’ve been strategizing. We’ve imagined how incredible it will feel to reach the summit of one of these mountains. We’ve improved our gear to include hiking boots, bear bells, and Camelbaks. We’ve practiced with the gear, started wearing our hiking boots, and taken increasingly longer hikes to improve their endurance. We’ve worked on hydration and fueling methodologies on the trail. We’ve talked about timing so that we avoid afternoon thunderstorms. We’ve explored the potential dangers we might encounter including rattlesnakes, bears, unexpected and fast-moving weather, unintended injury, and more. We’ve discussed how to avoid these encounters, and what to do if we cannot. We’ve researched the potential first fourteener and those that might follow to best understand how we can scale up our skills. We’ve combined preparing with dreaming.

As credit unions consider their strategies for 2021 and beyond, a similar approach applies. All the possible negative outcomes from the impact of COVID-19, on both human beings and the economy, combine to present fourteener-style strategic challenges. It would be natural to feel fear. When approaching a tough mountain trail, fear might tempt us to stay home. In a credit union, it might lead us to flee towards safe choices and expense control. While every credit union is as diverse as the hiking options in Colorado, the principles of a strong strategic approach fit just as well today as a pair of broken-in hiking boots, leading us to stretch and enjoy the climb, even when it seems taller than we pictured. 

As your credit union grows your strategic approach, here are five things I invite you to pack in your gear bag along with important questions to take back to your leadership team and board to ensure you reach the views from the top of the mountain:

  1. Iterate. Iterate. Iterate. As we plan to climb a fourteener, we continue to evolve our plan. Elements and core tenants of the plan remain the same, but our approach and tactics evolve as we learn more. Credit unions often approach strategy as a one-time event. You might plan an offsite meeting around this time of year. Presentations are prepared. Goals are considered. Large binders codify commitments. A budget output is finalized. It works … but it has limitations. As the world has continued to change more rapidly, there is now a necessity to build in a cycle for strategic thinking that keeps our approach alive and iterative. 2020 and all its many challenges have cemented that need. 
    1. How might your leadership team elevate strategic dialogue on an ongoing basis?
    2. What are the areas of exploration that are most important for the next year for your leadership team and board to consider? 
    3. What cadence of strategic dialogue will ensure iteration is possible and rising above the other pressures of daily leadership commitments?
  1. Dream Big, and Feel It. One of our first tasks as we started considering climbing a fourteener was to cast a vision for our young climbers. We invited them to imagine the sense of accomplishment they would feel when they arrived at the top of the mountain. While the challenges of this time lend themselves to considering and preparing for the worst-case scenarios, this is also a moment to think about the potential impact a credit union could create with an even more bold approach. Dreaming big could mean creating a more expansive vision, discovering new markets, considering new business models, and exploring new product lines. 
    1. What are possibilities that your credit union might explore to create even stronger impact?
    2. How might you invite your board and leadership team to dream together about exponential potential that you may have never considered?
  1. Define Impact. Impact for athletes varies widely but climbing a percentage of Colorado’s fourteeners is a lofty goal for two elementary-age kiddos. Similarly, the goals that we set as an organization largely define our focus. The typical types of goals that we set can be powerful but may not invite inspiration across the organization. Credit unions have the potential to create enormous impact for human beings: When we help support a stronger financial future, the possibilities for individuals within their communities are boundless. Imagine if your credit union were increasing the home ownership rates within your community, or improving the overall wellness of members, or improving the percentage of those that have saved for an emergency. Helping the organization and your team see the incredible potential you can create can be a catalyzing force for your employees. It can also be a differentiator that your credit union can use to support growth. 
    1. What is one area of impact your credit union might reach for in the next five years? 
    2. What market needs exist within your field of membership that your credit union might support and help transform?
  1. Infuse Brainfood. Knowledge reduces fear, sparks new ideas, and when shared, creates cohesion. As we prepare to hike and share knowledge with our young hikers about the possible dangers we could encounter, it arms them for what they may face. For our credit unions, especially in this unique time, there are so many strategic influences, considerations, and possibilities. Providing relevant and fresh content to spark conversations around the most important areas of focus for your credit union can also be powerful. That content can come from industry leaders, external subject matter experts, or even from internal talent. Finding the right mix of brainfood and time for conversation is an art to perfect. Considering content throughout the year that helps support ongoing dialogue can help to shape the arc of your strategic cycle and elevate conversations and outcomes.
    1. What content is most important for your credit union to consider in the coming 12 months?
    2. What content would best be supported with external expertise?
    3. What is a topic area the credit union has not yet considered deeply that would be important to add?
  1. Balance the Team. As a family, we share a lot, but we are also very different. Jude is a planner and will help ensure we are ready for every potential outcome. MacKenzie relishes experiences and she’ll help us to see the beauty and joy on each trail. Whether on a mountain or leading a credit union, certainty never exists. Bringing together a diverse team with different perspectives, approaches, and skills will help build strategic success. Bringing together a diverse team starts that balance. Creating an environment where differing views are not only permitted but welcomed ensures balance thrives. When you consider the players on your leadership team and on your board, it is imperative to have a balance of your skeptics and worriers with your dreamers and optimists. 
    1. Who are your most optimistic dreamers?
    2. Who are your realists and skeptics?
    3. How might you invite those that have those tendencies to share their important perspectives and bring balance to your conversations?

At Canvas, we work hard to hear the perspectives of our constituents, including our members, community, and internal family members. A common theme that we’ve heard consistently is that people want their financial institution to be a trusted resource that feels like a friend. Imagine the change that credit unions might create over time if we become that resource and help support people creating the stronger financial future they desire. As we amplify our strategic approach and challenge ourselves to consider even bolder possibilities, we can be one of the stabilizing and positive forces during a dark time. Just as we did during our early beginnings through the Great Depression, credit unions can be exactly what people need as we all hike towards the top of this challenging mountain. The hike may be long as we summit the fourteeners of 2020, but our strategic preparation, endurance, grit, and vision for what may come will ensure we find our way.

Tansley Stearns

Tansley Stearns

Tansley is a dynamic force of nature, fiercely crusading on behalf of all credit unions while tirelessly driving forward the brand image and family spirit of Canvas. She joined us ... Web: Details

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