It’s no secret that the credit union industry has changed drastically over the last five to ten years. The impact of technology, regulation, competition, and the rise of a new type of consumer have made change the only consistent thing the credit union industry can truly count on.
To succeed in today’s market, you need a different strategy, a different approach to how you do business, and one that calls for a different type of team member to deliver it. In the good old days, a member came into the credit union, asked for what they wanted, and your team member’s job was to ensure the member got it. In the most progressive financial services cultures, a credit union might go so far as to offer a member another product or two or even do a quick profile. That approach, while admirable, is not enough in today’s challenging environment.
Today’s members now turn to technology for routine and easy-to-handle transactions and save interaction with their credit union for more complex needs and services. The volume of regulation combined with a lack of clarity means team members need to be able to handle the challenges of implementation and compliance. Additionally, the ever-changing competitive market has created a powerful consumer who now expects exceptional service and delivery. Added to this is the fact that social networking provides members the ability to “spread the word” to thousands of other prospects about their experience with your credit union, and it becomes clear that credit unions don’t just need to know your products and services; you need a team that can and will actually think critically.
Critical thinking (the ability to quickly assess the situation, define the strengths and weaknesses as they relate to the implications of the decision, and act accordingly) is the most important skill team members need to succeed in today’s changing and challenging environment. Nothing in today’s financial services industry is black and white, and constant change, combined with higher customer expectations, has created an environment where the most valuable team members we have are the ones who can think on their feet, make quick decisions, and feel empowered to act.
The problem is, as leaders in credit unions, we have created a culture that discourages our employees from assessing, thinking and acting. Rules and policies, downsizing, and direct leadership styles have created team members who are often afraid to act, and feel compelled to do only what a manager asks of them, rather than to adjust their strategies to meet both the members’ need and their manager’s objective.
So, if a team of critical thinkers is what we need, how do we, as leaders, build a culture that not only attracts and retains that type of talent, but that also develops it?
- Question – If you want your team to think critically, then ask them to think, and learn to lead through questions! All too often as leaders we supply the answers, solve problems, and offer the solutions for our teams, creating not only a sense of reliance on us as leaders, but actually taking away any reason for team members to think through problems. The next time one of your team members has a question, I challenge you not to answer it. Instead, rather than giving them the answer, ask them what they think, what they would do, and what solutions they have. Even if their solution isn’t perfect, and you have to supply the answer in the end, you have inspired them to think before they act. What a concept!
- Explain – If you want your team members to think, you need to offer them ownership in the process. As a leader in today’s challenging environment, the questions of what and why something needs to be done or needs to change belong to you, but the question of how belongs to the team. Helping your team understand objectives and why they are important supports their big-picture vision, and getting them to answer the question of how ensures that they think through the situation, come up with solutions, and take ownership over the process.
- Challenge – Thinking is like a muscle and it needs to be pushed to grow. If you want your team to learn to think, they need challenge. To produce thinkers, provide opportunities for your team to get outside the box, come up with new ideas, and try new approaches. And as a leader, you need to surrender to the outcome of this challenge. Failure and disappointment are powerful allies when developing the skill of critical thinking. As a leader, understanding that your team will learn a great deal from challenge and failure will produce a team of critical thinkers.
- Coach – As a leader, you need to invest in your team and carve out time for personal development in the form of coaching. Investing in your team gives you the opportunity to work one-on-one with team members to objectively discuss what they feel is and isn’t working and then work together to develop a plan about (think through) what they can do to bring themselves and your organization to the next level.
- Reward – Recognize and reward what you want. If you want critical thinking skills, reward and recognize team members who display those skills, regardless of the outcome. Rewarding members who take risks, think through problems, and have the courage to act will reinforce the message that critical thinking and action are what you and your organization value. As a leader, the more you do to positively reinforce this behavior (and coach through the result), the more you will do to inspire critical thinking.
In today’s environment, your greatest competitive advantage is your team. As a leader, you need to ensure you’re doing everything you can to fully develop your team by teaching them the skill they need to succeed.