NAFCU Services Blog

Apr 25, 2011 by David Frankil

Finding the next generation of credit union leaders – 5 Key Traits

Great article on leadership in the 4-17-11 Sunday New York Times – adapted from “The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed.”

The key question asked by the article – out of a pool of 100 people with similar attributes, what are the leadership characteristics that are essential for success – success for the individual and success for the organization? As credit unions turn over a major portion of their leadership over the next decade, finding executives with these characteristics becomes essential as we seek the next generation of leaders.

There are five, and they are all traits that can be developed (as opposed to being innate) -

1. Passionate Curiosity – “Though chief executives are paid to have answers, their greatest contributions to their organizations may be asking the right questions.” Many CEOs say their most difficult job lies in being the change agent, in challenging the status quo, which is almost always disruptive to an organization. Being persistent about asking questions “… much like a persistent 5-year-old, the simplest questions. Why do you do that? How come it’s done this way? Is there a better way?”

I see this as a special challenge for financial services in general and credit unions in particular. Financial services because it has traditionally been viewed as a commodity business driven by rates, and credit unions because their unique cooperative business model doesn’t engender the same competitive edge that you see driving change in the banking world.

2. Battle-Hardened Confidence – Ever wonder why so many interview question decks include ‘tell me about your greatest failure and how you dealt with it?’ CEOs looking for leaders “… want to know if somebody is the kind of person who takes ownership of challenges or starts looking for excuses.”  The concept is called ‘locus of control’ - Do they tend to blame failures on factors they cannot control, or do they believe they have the ability to shape events and circumstances by making the most of what they can control? It’s a positive attitude mixed with a sense of purpose and determination. People who have it will take on, and own, any assignment thrown their way. They say those words that are music to a manager’s ears: “Got it. I’m on it.”

While there are far fewer credit union failures than banks, which means the available pool of ‘battle-hardened’ employees with credit union failure on their resume is mercifully small, there are still plenty of senior executives who have this ‘take charge/take ownership’ spirit. The question I would ask you as a manager is whether you do everything possible to encourage this spirit in your direct reports.

3. Team Smarts – Not just being a team player, but understanding how to get the most out of a team.  “Team smarts refers to the ability to recognize the players the team needs and how to bring them together around a common goal.” Go back to the lessons you learned growing up playing sports – some people are best suited to the outfield, or the offensive line – others make great pitchers and wide receivers. And use your favorite Gene Mauch or Vince Lombardi (or John Wooden) coaching leadership analogy here about inspiring teams, there are too many to pick from!

Executing on this tenet can require some restructuring when you have employees that remain in one place for a long time, as is the norm at many credit unions. As noted above, change is difficult, but beneficial to everyone in the long-run. You need to put people in positions that are both a great fit for their skills and allow them to generate passion about what they do.

4. A Simple Mind-Set – Instead of ‘Death by PowerPoint’,  "most senior executives want the same thing from people who present to them: be concise, get to the point, make it simple." At the NAFCU Annual Conference two years ago we had a session called 'Income Opportunities,' where we gave five Preferred Partners eight minutes each to describe their solution and why it is relevant to credit unions.  We used the analogy of an Olympic long jump – we told them to just skip the whole ‘running up to the line’ thing and just do the jump. Some only got halfway through their run before the buzzer sounded.

This is easier to say than to do, which I am admitting before Fred or any of my Board members chime in and mention the 72 slide PowerPoint deck from our last Board meeting. But in my defense it included very succinct, to-the-point slides on many different topics. So it only looked like it was unfocused! :-)

5. Fearlessness – Given the rapid pace of change, maintaining the status quo and becoming complacent means falling behind. CEOs are “… looking for calculated and informed risk-taking, but mostly they want people to do things — and not just what they’re told to do.”  One CEO said “Specifically, in this culture I have to have people who not only can manage change but have an appetite for it.” But key to making this work is fostering an environment that rewards informed risk-taking, and that is also tolerant of executives that “… unsettle people by shaking up the status quo.”

As technology becomes more essential to financial services, credit union leaders are forced to adapt to a rapid development and innovation business cycle from the technology world that is practically alien to ours. As technology becomes embedded in so much of what we do it forces credit unions to adapt to the faster cycle to maintain competitiveness, which means change (and fearlessness) has become a permanent feature of the credit union landscape.

And let me finish with a plug for our great team here at NAFCU Services when it comes to embracing change and being fearless– kudos to Kelly, Kirstin and Kristina, for developing and implementing great new ideas; our Preferred Partners, for supporting them; and to Fred Becker for allowing us to take those ‘informed risks’ when it comes to developing solutions for credit unions. We take great pride in being outside-the-box innovators at NAFCU Services, and let me refer you to three innovations in particular:

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