Want a more effective board? Blunt recommendations from a current chair

I am proud to be a credit union professional who also volunteers as a board member – it’s my sixth year on the board of directors for the $1.03 billion Firefly Credit Union, based in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, and my second year as Board Chair. Meanwhile, my day job for the past 10 years has been to serve as an executive with MEMBERS Development Company (MDC), an R&D CUSO owned by more than 40 of the nation’s top-tier credit unions.

Speaking for myself, my role on Firefly CU’s board has given me a well-rounded understanding of the issues facing credit unions today. By helping to steer a large credit union through today’s financial, technology and competitive challenges, I’ve gained an acute awareness of what MDC’s owners face and a better understanding of their R&D needs. Board service also develops leadership skills. Leading a two-hour, monthly meeting comprised of other directors and supported by senior management involves much more than just showing up.

How can you improve board performance?

There’s no doubt that my dual experience in credit unions has made me more effective at both roles, leading me to share some recommendations about how to have a powerful credit union board of directors.

  • Get rid of board elections. Well, not exactly. Credit unions’ democratic structure is at the heart of what sets us apart from for-profit financial institutions. But typically less than 5% of the membership vote without knowing anything at all about a candidate (except, perhaps, that s/he is an incumbent), and most others know little about candidates’ relevant experience. If you want the most qualified people serving your credit union, put the power of selecting board volunteers in the hands of those who understand the role best – your board. Since Firefly CU changed our bylaws to give our nominating committee the responsibility of identifying, interviewing, and recommending highly qualified board members, the strength and depth of our volunteers has increased dramatically.

Board members must be vetted to avoid simply re-electing incumbents who may not be the best candidates for the job, either because they lack the qualifications or don’t respect the requirements and expectations that go with serving as a director. Make no mistake about it – serving on a credit union board is a job, a very serious one, in fact. Trust this—your board knows much better than the average member who is best qualified to fulfill these obligations.

  • Identify specific qualifications, as well as expectations, for board service. To avoid nominating candidates who are unqualified or unprepared to meet the requirements, the board should set out specific qualifications and expectations for volunteer service. For example, directors need a basic level of financial skills, including understanding of financial statements and key ratios (or make and follow through on a commitment to attend financial training). Board members must be prepared before meetings, reading and reviewing board packet materials so they are able to discuss serious issues and make key decisions. It wastes everyone’s time to have to bring a negligent board member “up to speed” during the meeting. And they must make meeting attendance a priority (with the understanding that only a limited number of unexcused absences will be allowed).

Board members serving on the nominating committee should also consider the following points: Are there skills gaps on our board that need to be addressed? Are our membership demographics accurately represented at the table? Do we have candidates running for another term who regularly miss meetings, are consistently late or ask questions that make it obvious they didn’t prepare? Is there feedback on board evaluations we should consider? What knowledge requirements should we set? Only after the committee has established sound criteria, approved by the full board, should it develop a slate of nominees.

  • Don’t hide behind term limits. Chances are, there are disengaged or unqualified board members who are dragging down your board’s overall performance. Credit unions are complex financial institutions we are asked to guide; there is simply no room for slackers who see board service as a hobby or way to gain prestige. Many boards view term limits as a way to weed out ineffective directors. Instead, have the courage to let people know when it’s time to move on. It’s our responsibility as board members to take that charge seriously and not only get the right people on the bus, but to have the hard conversations and ask the wrong people to step aside.

Term limits can be useful for getting fresh perspectives on your board; but they also can work against you if it means you must release effective, diligent directors. At Firefly CU, it would have meant eliminating two of our most experienced, engaged, and passionate directors, leaving a huge leadership hole on our board. Term limits are not always the answer – strong leadership is.

What makes an effective director?

Many credit union CEOs I talk with bemoan the fact that their board members are mostly retired, unwilling to learn new technologies, and/or disengaged from their credit union’s desired demographics;. So, who is the perfect candidate? It isn’t about age or gender (although a cross-section of both is certainly healthy). Instead, boards need volunteers who are engaged with the credit union’s success, interested in current market and economic issues, and willing to put in the time and effort to be effective.

As someone who has drunk the “credit union Kool-Aid,” I didn’t think it was possible to become more committed to our industry. But by serving on my own credit union’s board, I’ve become a stronger supporter of our cooperative movement, and the benefits we offer everyday Americans. I have seen our board members transform into a diverse, passionate, financially educated, and powerful group of volunteers, and I’m proud to work with them. It can be done – it just requires time, focus, and strong leadership. It’s exciting to participate in activities that directly affect the success of regular people … and it’s also a bit of a thrill to be addressed as Madam Chair.


Sarah Lietz

Sarah Lietz

Sarah Lietz is Director of Projects and Marketing for MEMBERS Development Company, which serves as a billion-dollar R&D budget for many of the nation’s largest credit unions. Web: membersdevelopment.com Details