There is a long history of credit union staff taking pride in being more than a financial institution and more like a family to colleagues and members. While this may feel right, it is an attitude that can challenge the productivity of organizations that have become extremely complex. It is often not effective to behave like a mom-and-pop shop anymore.
By Kevin Smith
This may not be a very popular post. But I hope you’ll hear me out and consider the perspective that I’m bringing. Too be absolutely clear, this is not a clear-cut issue with easy sides to be on. It is a complicated tight-rope walk for credit unions. Those who figure out how to navigate this balancing act my lock onto a great differentiator and market advantage.
During my recent travels, during a keynote session I was giving I asked about some of the concerns the board members were having. Someone spoke up from the crowd with a troubled look on his face. He said something to the effect of, “We’re always talking about how we’re ‘family.’ But I have a problem with that. We’re NOT a family. We are a business, and we need to act like it.” This took me off guard, precisely because in the credit union movement, particularly in smaller and midsized credit unions, we talk like this all the time. It was a minor stir in the room, with some chatter. Some looked thoughtful, some concerned, and some puzzled. The gentleman spoke up again to say sometimes acting like family is getting in the way of us getting things done, because we are not acting professionally enough in an industry that demands it in order to keep up, much less thrive.
He’s got a point. I don’t love it, but he does have a point.
We credit union people love to be something other than bank-like and other than corporate. It’s a way for us to set ourselves apart and differentiate ourselves from cold, profit-driven businesses that don’t care about us as humans, who only want our dollars. There’s a lot to be said for this human approach to members and colleagues.
But there’s a difficult side to this approach as well. Often when we treat people like family rather than colleagues we don’t take the rational and pragmatic approach to getting things accomplished. We all know that we’d generally give family more chances at redemption than we would others. Blood is thicker than water, as the saying goes. And you can’t choose your family; you’re just stuck with them. (I know it’s more nuanced and complicated than this, but there’s a point here.)
With as much consolidation as there is and as many mergers as there are, we know that there are some that are not making it. It is a challenging and complex industry that does not look like it did ten years ago much less than its inception a hundred years ago. I’m not saying that this is all due to this family approach. But are we evolving as much as we need to?
I have to tell you that I’m really uncomfortable with the direction this blog post is going. I don’t like it. No sir. Not one bit. The family aspects of this industry are a draw for me. At the same time, the change that I’ve seen over my 18 years here are jaw dropping.
Perhaps there are ways to walk this tightrope between family and business. Maybe you know how to do this or have examples of this done right. I’m eager to hear. Send them along. The right balance might just be the magic approach. And I’ll say very quickly – some of you think you’re doing this already. I’m not sure I agree.
Family Versus Humans
There’s a distinction necessary here: it’s two different approaches between treating people like family and treating people compassionately as humans, with some serious overlap. Simon Sinek and Gary Vaynerchuk (and others) are proponents of the empathetic human approach to business. It’s distinct from a family approach.
Surly you’ve noticed that I’m not doling out any advice as to how to navigate this. (Yes. And don’t call me Shirly.) The truth is that I’m not sure how to handle this. It was a thoughtful, thought-provoking comment from a board member at a conference. Hurray for that. Kudos to him for bringing a challenging idea to the table. I certainly hope that happens as often as possible, because I see an awful lot of opportunity to collaborate on these difficult ideas.
Sometimes I’m thrown off. I’m sure I need to think about this one more. But it’s been weighing on my mind for a bit and needed to get it out there for you smart people to work on. Let’s face it: some families are dysfunctional.
What do you think?
What do you see?
If you think you’re doing this balancing act well, what makes you so sure?
I want to hear from you.