Credit unions as an industry have had to lean in towards rapid change and evolution over the last decade, exacerbated by the pandemic. Boards of directors are starting to (finally) acknowledge the need to try to lean in to these changes. Yet, despite these good intentions, often the lean in turns to lip service when they fail to actually “do things” differently in the boardroom.
By Kevin Smith
There certainly aren’t a lot of silver linings from the pandemic. As a matter of fact, I don’t even like presenting it in this light. But one angle that I think we can all agree on is that credit unions, who aren’t known for their speed in change, found out that they could pivot on a dime when they had to. It was fabulous to see worried credit union leaders and their staffs adapt and figure things out pretty quickly. It’s my hope that we all embrace this as a new skill set and keep flexing that muscle. Indeed, many have.
In that light, we also saw some slow to move boards have their eyes thrown wide at the steps necessary to keep working towards the credit union’s purpose. Directors faced the unsettling predicament and supported their leadership and staff as they made fairly radical moves to keep the organization open and serving members who desperately needed their help. Most rose to the challenge and it was fantastic to watch (stressful as it was).
Now when I worry (and I do worry), it’s about falling back into old patterns, inertia and complacency. Mostly what I notice from directors is significant embracing of the language of change, particularly when they talk about their leadership and the operations. But what I’m seeing less is boards leaning in themselves to changing their patterns and approaches in the board room and in their governance work.
It’s not exactly lip service to embracing change that I see. Board members seem very genuinely supportive of the need for faster evolution and development at the operational level. Though it looks a lot more like lip service in regard to changing at the governance level. The two need to happen in synchrony to be most effective.
Hence the snarky title of this post: You can’t do things differently, if you don’t do things differently.
- Does your monthly agenda basically a template reused month to month?
- Do your board meetings have a very predictable flow?
- Are the same people talkative (or quiet) without fail?
- Has your board packet had the same format for, oh, over a decade?
These may be red flags that the board is in a rut.
*(Here’s a fun, or maybe terrible, exercise: Challenge the senior leadership to do the funniest skit possible, while performing as the board of directors. This “court jester” approach will reveal any predictability and stereotypes that bubble to the surface. Warning: you may need thick skin for this, but it will certainly be educational.)
Naturally I come prepared for the Yeahbuts.
- “Yeah, but it took us a long time to develop this approach and it works really well.”
- “Yeah, but we have a lot of work to do and this is efficient.”
- “Yeah, but the regulators are expecting xyz.”
- “Yeah, but you’re suggesting change for change’s sake.”
- “Yeah, but all of this change is going to cause a lot of extra work for the board and the staff.”
I’m not suggesting reinvention every month, or change for change’s sake only. I am suggesting that the entire board look carefully at what they do, question it, and evaluate it in light of the changes the world has made around you. Make sure that anything that fits the category of “this is the way we’ve always done it” gets careful examination for relevance.
Suggestions for Inspection
- The board agenda: are there interesting discussions, not just monthly updates?
- Once a year (or as needed), make a determined effort to refine an element of the board packet that makes it easier. [Some of you may need a full revamp. This is more effort. Tackle it. Others may be able to do a regular tweak.]
- Board chairs: review the personalities in the room. Find out how to change the dynamics of predictable discussions. (Have a one-on-one chat with all directors and ask them for help.)
Support for the Change-Hesitant
Not everyone embraces change. Some actively push back against it. But the adage holds true: “The only constant is change.” So, I encourage directors to have a discussion to really understand how you may be doing things differently to support the change in the operations. You will need to support and understand those who are resistant and help them face the approach with strength. It’s worth it.