Credit Union CEO Salaries: Wading into Turbulent Waters and Pulling the Board Members with Us

As the credit union industry changes rapidly and increases in complexity, board members need to make sure they are keeping up with industry trends and standards. If they don’t, they risk their credit union becoming irrelevant and disappearing. One area that this is increasingly a problem is CEO salaries. Board members are often out of step with industry norms and expectations on CEO salaries, and that gap could become a detriment to their credit union.

By Kevin Smith and Tim Harrington

Here’s the scene: a young, first-time CEO stepping up to her new job, accepting a lower than desired/expected base salary. She rationalizes this as okay because she is a first-time CEO and is very happy to have the shot at the leadership role. After a couple of years, and some dramatically positive results for the credit union, the new CEO asks the board to revisit the salary only to have the board shut her down or offer a token “bump” in salary that is not aligned with the competitive realities of the marketplace, and certainly not aligned with the bottom line value provided by the CEO. The frustrated CEO is looking for ways to communicate with the board and get the value aligned … but that’s not going well.

We’re seeing this enough to call it a pattern.

Credit Union CEO Salary Discussion

Credit Union CEO Salary Discussion

This isn’t just happening with new CEOs trying to elevate their base salary to industry standards, it is also happening with long-time CEOs who are frustrated watching their base salary continue to fall behind the market. We are often asked to weigh-in about credit union CEO salary issues, sometimes by the board, sometimes by the CEO. To be clear, at TEAM Resources, we are NOT compensation experts. This does not fit into the consulting services we offer. But we are often pulled into this from a board/CEO communications and philosophical /theoretical/governance point of view. That’s the point of view we’ll present from here.

The reason we decided to write on this is that we have suddenly seen and uptick in these issues. CEOs and Boards at odds over what the CEO should be earning.

The CEO Pay Patterns

The general gist of all of the discussions is this: CEOs are concerned that their board of directors is out of touch with how to handle CEO pay. The boards are concerned that their CEO is expecting too much in salary or other compensation and is not appreciative of the board’s effort to compensate them fairly. Beyond that, the conversation takes a few somewhat nuanced but predictable patterns.

In each recent situation we have encountered, the CEO has made the following clear: They are thrilled to have the position. They are loyal to the credit union and don’t want to move. But they hit this compensation wall regularly enough that they are likely to seek another position.

There are a number of factors that regularly show up for this, sometimes in combinations:

  • The CEO is aware of the increasing complexity of the credit union and demands on the CEO. Technology, competitive and regulatory demands have all ratcheted-up in the last several years.
  • The board has typically given the CEO a certain annual increase that coincides with the annual increase given to the staff.
  • The CEO is aware – from peers, on-line CEO forums and trade-group salary surveys –what he or she should be earning, and comparing that to what they are currently earning.
  • The CEO is uncomfortable taking this information to the board…until the disparity becomes big enough that something must be done. By this time, there is also pent-up frustration.
  • Directors tend to support a base salary compensation calculation that reflects whatever industry they came from. If they work for the county, they propose a system like the county’s. If they came from the nearby manufacturing plant, they propose a system like the manufacturing plant’s. The problem is, few directors come from the financial services sector and are simply not aware how compensation is being calculated in THIS INDUSTRY.
  • Sometimes, the board is made up of members who never made a salary anywhere near what the new CEO is making and simply can’t see paying someone even more than they are already making.

Sadly, what has happened a few times is that the CEO reluctantly seeks employment elsewhere. And the board gets sticker-shock when they see what the new CEO candidates are expecting as their salary requirements.

What Should Board Members Do?

The simple answer is learn. It can be disorienting to see the salary expectations if your career background is very different from that of the credit union. But your role as a board member requires that you understand the industry. Comparing credit union salaries to your own background is often an apples-to-oranges comparison. If you can’t make that mental separation and consider your board service from the required fiduciary role, you are not the right board member for the credit union. It’s as simple as that.

Ask the right questions during the compensation process. Are you asking yourself, “I never made anywhere near that much money in a year. How can I vote for that?” or are you asking, “is this what’s right for our credit union, and our members?” Obviously, we’d like to see you asking the latter question.

Establish a Consistent System

What we still see is the board meeting toward the end of the year and saying, “Well, what do you think we should do about the CEO’s pay for the coming year?” This leads to arguments and heated discussions. It leads to inconsistency and arbitrary increases. We suggest you establish a Compensation Calculation System and put it into policy. This system could include third-party salary consultants, it could include references to the trade association salary surveys. Whatever you do, make sure you know what market salaries are doing, set up a system you can follow each year so that you don’t have to reinvent the process every year-end, and know what it will take to retain the talent you have.

Talent War for Leadership Positions

One of the greatest challenges in the next decade will be attracting and retaining talented people… and that starts with the CEO. There is a fierce competition for leadership talent within the financial services realm and certainly within the credit union movement. When you find a good CEO, do everything you can to retain him or her and reward them appropriately. If you don’t, well, what’s that old saying? “Penny wise and pound foolish.” You may have saved a few dollars by not keeping the current CEO appropriately paid. But then you will need to hire a new CEO, with all those costs and a new, higher salary. This is where that Sticker Shock comes in.

We believe that sometimes the board has the expectation that hiring a very young CEO is both a long-term plan (to avoid going through this process again any time soon) and a way to keep the salary lower. Youth is not a rationale for cost savings where the CEO is concerned.

There are plenty of ways to approach the compensation issue, with different methods of determining base salary incentives and bonus structure. Board awareness and interest, and leaving behind outmoded approaches and mindsets is needed in the modern arena. Taking an approach like this is also encouraging the best for the credit union’s sustainability. (I read a fantastic report from 2012 by Mike Higgins Jr. “Improving Peer Group Analysis for Credit Unions” that tackles benchmarking in a way that promotes member value and not simply backward looking ‘profit.’ I recommend it highly. No, it’s not out of date.)

Perhaps we’ve thrown a live grenade into a conversation. It’s not the first time.

It may appear that we’ve come out unabashedly on the side of the CEOs here without “both-sidesing” the topic. We don’t think so. If you know us at all you know that we have spent our credit union careers  primarily educating, supporting, and researching the best interests of credit union volunteers. We believe in them … in you. This is part of that effort.

Certainly, there CAN be CEOs who aren’t earning what they’re getting or those who are asking for more than they’re worth. (Don’t we have that everywhere, in everything?) Don’t throw that at us, please. This requires a more nuanced examination. And no, we don’t think CEOs get to write their own ticket no matter the circumstances.

What we DO believe is that this is a significant issue in our industry and that board members need to make sure their heads are not in the sand. We DO believe that without some recognition of this as an issue, credit unions are going to suffer and some of them are going to lose great talent, or end up with leadership that is mediocre enough to make the credit union go away. That’s not hyperbole.

As always – we welcome your thoughts and comments.

Oh yeah … Happy Holidays!! We’re counting on 2021 being a helluva lot better. Aren’t you?

–  Tim and Kevin

CEO Pushback

The CEO’s Question Conundrum (Board Members – Pay Attention!)

A CEO’s Question Conundrum is the conflict a leader has when dealing with inquiries that come from the board. The board is the CEO’s boss, and can ask for just about any CU related business, yet sometimes the board gets too far into the weeds with information requests. They go beyond agreed upon boundaries, they can be significant distractions, AND they take up valuable executive time. Does the CEO push back?

By Kevin Smith and Tim Harrington

CEO Pushback

Does the CEO pushback on board requests?

The board can ask the CEO anything, right?

Let’s avoid all technicalities and cutesiness for this one. (ex. Anyone can ask anyone anything … technically speaking.) Let’s jump right to: Should the CEO answer any and all questions posed by the board? The TEAM Resources answer: NO. (*Even though I want, with all my heart, to say “it depends.” K. Smith.)

This topic is posed to us regularly. Not from CEOs who are being dodgy, or hiding things, or as lies of omission. Generally speaking this comes to us from earnest and hardworking CEOs who have a tremendous amount on their plates. They are pressed for time. They come to us when their boards are overwhelming them with requests for information that is operational, in the weeds, and far from strategic.

At TEAM Resources, we teach “strategic governance” that creates written policy boundaries between the operational and the strategic, between the board’s role and the CEO’s. By and large CU boards are making an effort to move towards the strategic, but operational views of board service linger in the DNA of the credit union movement.

There are a couple of things at stake here to address:

  1. A well-educated board is key to a board that can function at the strategic level. (That means asking a lot of questions to learn, does it not? Yes, ma’am it does.) But there should be a time and a place for the educational pieces. Taking the CEO’s valuable time to get to these can be a significant problem and a time drain.
    • This doesn’t necessarily just mean the CEO “delegates” the answering of board questions. That doesn’t necessarily solve the problem.
    • The board should have access to lots of data and information to be well-informed and to verify the information that the CEO provides. (Trust, but verify.)
  1. This is a delicate balance as directors shouldn’t be stifled in their information feedback systems, so they fulfill their fiduciary duty and understand what’s happening and the levels of risk in the credit union.

Can and Should the CEO Push Back?

If the board is asking for too much of the wrong kind of information, should the CEO push back? We believe that they should. This is terrifying advice for many CEOs. After all, the board is the CEO’s boss and this could create negative tension. The CEO can push back in a calculated and thoughtful way by asking their own questions about the information at stake. What do they need? And why? What will they do with that information?

It’s our sincere hope that the CEO isn’t terrified to push back on this information. In fact, with the right kinds of preparations, good strategic governance conditions among the board members, and the right kinds of communication between the board and CEO, it isn’t “push back” per se, but healthy navigation of the governance tightrope.

How Does this Work?

The board and CEO create the right conditions for healthy strategic governance by talking about what it means to be operational or “in the weeds” and what it means to be at the strategy level. These are discussions that result in clear governance policy. The board must come to an agreement among itself to know what kinds of information they need in order to do strategic work. We recommend that the board chair be the one who passes along requests from directors, after they have agreed (and voted, if necessary) about what kinds requests they will make. We don’t believe that individual directors should make requests to the CEO or staff members. (This undermines the chain of command and staff members may view this as de facto policy making.)

Information Filters for the CEO

  1. If the question is clearly strategic or aligns with the Key Strategic Drivers, easy: answer it.
  2. If they ask for a report that is new, not typical, or clearly operational, that’s easy too: bounce it back to the board.
  3. If they ask a question that is a clarification of something in the packet and it can easily be answered without research, the CEO may just want to answer it and be done with it.

However (#1), if the question seems purely operational, and NOT just a clarification of something in the packet, pass it back to the board. 

However (#2), if the question requires research or going back to another member of the management team, this requires some discernment. You may want to pass it back and ask if the entire board feels there’s value in getting this answer.

  1. If the answer is easy, and not leading down the slippery slope to operational digging, it is probably worth answering. If it is leading down the slippery slope. Use it as a teaching/discussion tool at the board.

A value in the director asking questions before the board meeting (as long as they are appropriate questions) is that the CEO can resolve the issue ahead of time and it doesn’t take up meeting time. So, the CEO must have some clarity on when to respond and when to bounce it back. When the board and the CEO work together to set up a healthy governance environment, there is no CEO’s Question Conundrum. 

Let us know what you think. Leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.

The CEO’s Annual Review in a Crisis

Credit union directors face a daunting challenge this year as you consider the annual review of your credit union’s CEO. Many or all of your standard metrics will need to be thrown out and replaced with criteria that is specific to the context of the year.

By Tim Harrington and Kevin Smith

CEO Annual Review

CEO Annual Review

One of the significant functions of the board of directors is to perform the annual review of your CEO. Many of you will face this soon, before the end of the year. So what emoji adequately captures your thoughts on getting ready for that? Confusion, fright, thoughtful, scared, face-palm, nausea, challenge? It’s all of the above, right?

The most likely scenario is that whatever you set up last year as part of the strategic plan for 2020 you need to fully or mostly throw aside and you will have to start over.

At TEAM Resources we have been working on this issue. We found it challenging as well. We have done research about what other industries are doing. Do you know what we found? Very little, many are stumped, and what advice IS out there is impossibly vague. Not helpful.

Consider this: Your CEO may have worked harder than ever before this year. In previous years, a less-than-stellar CEO in a good economy may have reached numbers that meant a very large bonus. This year, despite all of the hard work from a great leader, the credit union might lose some money. Thanks to his/her hard work, the credit union not only still exists, but the loss of money could have been a bloodbath, but it’s not. Is it fair to not reward this because the organization “lost” money? (We’re facing a Gilligan’s Island moment, believe it or not: “If not for the courage of the fearless crew, the Minnow would be lost, the Minnow would be lost.”)

At the same time, you will have to consider how much the credit union is struggling, or whether there have been layoffs or furloughs in the face of the pandemic. This may not be the time to be handing out bonuses despite how hard your CEO worked, and how much they rose to the leadership challenges throw their way.

So, What Annual Review Criteria Do You Look For This Year?

Now is the time to reflect on your values as a credit union and as a board. Review all that has happened. What were the notable things that happened that are in line with the clear values of the organization? Things like:

  • Members helped;
  • Staff health and wellbeing preserved … or notably inspired;
  • Difficult decisions made under duress that helped; or
  • Innovative products created;

Or … the opposite of all of this. What if the CEO didn’t rise to the crisis leadership challenge? This cannot be glossed over either. But judging that on outdated financial targets/projections is not the way to assess that.

Part of what you can do is let these values guide you and your discussion throughout the process. But what we want to caution you about is turning this review into a purely subjective response.

Considerations of the CEO Assessment     

Boards also need to consider are the implications to not getting this annual review right.

There are significant downsides of not being able to reward the efforts, recognize the dedication, loyalty & achievement. This is true in any year, but may be more so in a year of crisis.

How do you handle this? Like all good complex questions, the answer is “it depends.” You will need to ask your CEO for different kinds of information that aren’t on your standard metric reporting. Ask for measurements of things that did happen this year that were in line with your values and goals for the credit union.

Can you compare to expectations, or to peer? Well … maybe, but both of those options require some significant analysis of the context to make them realistic and valuable.

Want more detail on this topic?

We have created a webinar on this topic to dig in further. We invite you to have a look: for more information.

or you can order it now for $199:

The Board Chair’s Guide to Zoom Meetings

Let me guess … your board meeting has gone digital and virtual, right? Lucky guess or what?!

Credit Union Board Chairs – Let’s talk about that move to virtual. Let’s talk about what that means for you and how things need to change.

Let’s be clear. This move is not like moving to a different meeting room while your board room gets painted. This isn’t a simple change of physical space. The meetings will need to be managed differently and more carefully.

As you probably already know, it’s going to take a while for everyone to get used to this. Be patient but not so much so that you let things fall through the cracks. Discussion may be clunky as only one person can speak at a time. This tends to make people stay more silent than usual. That may be a welcome relief from Chatty-Charlie but your quieter board members are likely to go invisible altogether. That’s not acceptable.

Communication Breakdown: Is it always the same?

First, you’re going to need to manage the group in a more calculated way with more overt rules to keep things running smoothly. This means communication and more communication, and then a bit more. Don’t worry about being redundant redundant.

Send as much as you can ahead of time, with regular reminders. (Think how many times you’ve lost the first reminder you got about something and then had to dig for it in your email!)

Overt Instructions

Now, when you start the meeting, give clear instructions about how you will be managing the meeting. Don’t take little things for granted that you would at an in-person meeting.

For example,
“Here’s how we’re going to handle the discussion and agenda for today:

We’ll use raised hands AND voice for making a motion and for a second.

You all have a post-it note next to you. Raise the post-it when you want to jump in about something.”

Taking Advantage of Visual Cues

And here’s a little trick I picked up from L. David Marquet in Leadership is Language:

Rather than asking yes/no questions, like, “does anyone have any objections?” or “Do we all agree?” (These invite simple agreement and groupthink.) Try, “With one hand, give me a zero to five. How confident are you about taking this approach?” (BTW – Marquet’s book is fantastic! I highly recommend it.)

This not only takes advantage of the visual cues, but also gives insight about low or high confidence – always valuable to the conversation. They all may have voted yes, but a person who is a “one” for confidence is far different than the person who gave a “five.” That’s your chance to tease this out and have the right kind of debate.

Make these things clear. And as chair, in this setting, you’ll need to be a bit more active about drawing out voices. You don’t need people to chat, just for the sake of chatting, but you DO need to make sure there’s healthy debate.

And then there’s always the trick of assigning the role of devil’s advocate on a rotating basis.

The “Mores” (Not the Moores)

There should be lots of “mores.”

  • More communication
  • More preparation
  • More done in between meetings
  • More “managing” of the meeting in a calculated way.
  • More managing of any tendency towards silence.
  • More facing hesitance and spotting it and digging in deeper.
  • More talk via phone in between. (Not everything has to be on Zoom video, for crying out lout!)

No. This virtual think did NOT necessarily make your job any easier, I’m afraid. But you’ll find that these are easy things to incorporate and in short order they’ll become customary and help things along. You might even find some things that ARE in fact helping you make some much needed changes in the board dynamic.

10 Critical Elements of a Board’s Role in Crisis Management

by Tim Harrington
1. Take the moral high ground. Do what is right. Stay true to your “Moral Purpose” and its focus towards your members, employees and community.
2. Keep people’s health and safety first.
3. Be proactive. When signs of a crisis arise, start asking the tough questions of each other and of the CEO. Gather additional information as necessary.
4. Be nimble in changing board processes and roles: new committees, virtual meetings, on-line votes, etc.
5. Support the CEO. Ask “what do you need from the board?”
6. Be prepared to temporarily redraw the line between Governance and Operations if necessary. This line is not fixed. In good times it should give the CEO great leeway. But it may shift toward operations in crisis.
7. Keep the full board apprised, not just the chair, executive committee, risk committee, etc.
8. Speed up every process you have. Immediacy is essential.
9. Over-communication is better than under communication.
10. Know that at the center of every catastrophe is the seed opportunity.

How to spot a board in trouble (an incomplete listicle)

By Tim Harrington and Kevin Smith

This is not a comprehensive list. In fact, we’d like to hear from others the things that they’ve seen or what they look for. We’re sure our smart readership has some things to add. This is also not a checklist. We’re not suggesting that once you’ve identified all eight of these you’ve found your troubled board. (Notice that some of these are countervailing.) But these are things that show up regularly and have been present when dealing with troubles.

How to Spot a Board in Trouble, Red Flags

How to Spot a Board in Trouble

  1. No turnover on the board – Why? Lack of desire for change? Lack of recruiting? Difficulty in recruiting? Contentment with the status quo?
  2. Heavy turnover on the board – Again, why?
  3. No diversity on the board – this means you really don’t represent the demographics of your membership. (We doubt your field of membership is made up exclusively of 67-year-old white dudes.)
  4. The CEO attends all committee meetings – Is this the board’s overreliance on the CEO? Or is this the CEOs inability to let go of control?
  5. No executive sessions – This suggests that there is a lack of trust somewhere (or a lack of understanding of executive sessions). See our blog post about this topic.
  6. Same chair for the last 20+ years – This is a red flag about resistance to change. (This could be a chair that has been begging for years for someone else to take the helm, which is also a red flag.)
  7. Four CEOs in the last five years – Not long ago we talked about the “rebound” CEO, which means it’s very possible to have had three CEOs in the last five years and that’s only a bump in the road and not a red flag. But the minute you reach the number “four” this is a giant red flag.
  8. All of the board members are from the single SEG sponsor (even though the CU has had a community charter for years). Do we have to explain this one? See #6.

Some of you are going to disagree. We’re fine with that.
Some of you are going to point out a piece of anecdotal evidence that contradicts what we’ve said above. We’re also fine with that, and we still strongly make our claim despite your story.

Let’s duke it out and talk about it.

Yes. Context is everything. These are red flags that cause us to explore, and ask more questions.

Any questions? Any answers? Anyone want a mint?


On the Board Improvement Highway, The Onramp and the Offramp are Equally Important

Onboarding and offboarding of directors is crucial for boards with an Infinite mindset and goal for improvement. Often onboarding gets lip service and a little attention while offboarding is virtually unheard of. These steps help create a positive governance culture and a higher performing board. Presenting comprehensive information with support, and asking the right questions are the ways to unlock the power of these.

By Kevin Smith

Board Improvement Highway

Board Improvement Highway

It’s a simple metaphor. Really. Credit union board service is a highway journey for which we must have an onramp and an offramp. But here’s the deal – too many credit unions, boards and directors only pay attention to the “highway” part of that. Some pay cursory attention to the onramp and MOST ignore the offramp completely. To extend this metaphor (reductio ad absurdum) to the ridiculous, it’s as if the board-mobile slows down a little bit, barely long enough for you to get in, but only opens the door for you to drop and roll on the way out. Sheesh! All to the detriment of the board. (In the next episode – is your board-mobile a 1972 Cadillac, a 1986 Chevy Chevette or a 2020 Tesla?!) Read more

Governance During Crisis: Some Thoughts on Board Leadership Amidst the Coronavirus Outbreak

Please have a look at the article that we wrote for Credit Union Times:


Shared vs. Classical Leadership & Challenges in Governance

Shared leadership is what credit union board members should practice but it’s rarely an idea that individuals coming into board service have a strong history with or understanding of. Intentionally opening up this as a discussion and reviewing expectations can be a tremendous asset towards effectiveness.

Recently, as part of my regular nerdy reading, I came across this distinction between Shared and ClassicalLeadership as drawn out by Nemerowicz and Rosi, in Education for Leadership and Social Responsibility (1997). I came of age really only knowing the classical definition of leadership as they’re presented here.

Shared vs. Classical Leadership

Nemerowicz and Rosi, Education for Leadership and Social Responsibility (1997), London, U.K.: Falmer Press

It was in the context of Herbert Thompson’s dissertation, Governance as Stewardship (2015), that the significance of this distinction for credit union board members became more apparent to me. Thompson notes, “In many cases, new board members, come to their first nonprofit governance experience with only a classical leadership understanding and cursory practice with operational/administrative boards” (43). Thinking back over my years of working with boards, this idea (of shared leadership) has been floating under the surface, and been mostly presumed but unsaid. This is a concept that is important to note and should be called out, brought to the surface and addressed more matter-of-factly. Read more

On the Rebound: Challenges in Hiring a CEO

On the Rebound: Challenges in Hiring a CEO

One of the most valuable and challenging actions a board can take is to hire a new CEO. Many credit union boards face replacing long-serving CEO who came up through the ranks from when the organization was much smaller. In this environment with a relative lack of experience the board may end up with a “rebound” CEO who isn’t a good fit and doesn’t last.

By Kevin Smith

There’s a scenario that I’ve come across a couple of times this year in credit unions, and I’ve heard of others. It seems to be a trend or at least a microtrend.

Here’s the scenario: A credit union has a long serving CEO, someone who often started at an entry level position and rose through the ranks to become the Chief Executive. After many years, or decades at the helm, the CEO retires. Nothing novel here (though the mere talk of it is enough to make some board members and board chairs start to sweat). And indeed, the board and the CU make not just average level efforts at succession, but really do take this seriously in order to make sure that they have the right fit in the next generation leader for their shop and for their members. They work hard at it, get industry research, sometimes hire a headhunter, make all the right phone calls and references, yadda yadda yadda. In other words – they do what they were supposed to do.

But here’s what happens: The new CEO lasts for roughly a year, give or take, and is gone. “What happened,” you ask? The response is often a range of stunned and unclear responses. “It just didn’t work out.” “It wasn’t a good fit.” “We thought we had a good cultural fit but it wasn’t.” Or even, “we don’t know what the heck happened, but it was a train wreck.”

I feel for these boards. I really do. Often, their good faith efforts really should have paid off with a good fit. But they didn’t. It all went sideways.

Read more

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