Credit union board members are dedicated volunteers for the credit union movement. They are the embodiment of the CU adage, “People helping people.” As the job gets more difficult and more complex, it’s my job to worry about directors and to figure out where they need help and how to help them. I look around to get help in this endeavor myself.
By Kevin Smith with a little help from some trusted friends.
I worry. I’m a worrier. It got so bad in my early days of grade school that my mom set an ultimatum. She told me, “You’re not allowed to worry about something unless I tell you to.” It didn’t really take, but she was trying hard. Those lines on my forehead (that I try to hide in my pictures), showed up very early in my life. So, yes, I’m a worrier. And naturally, since I care so much about credit unions and credit union board members, I worry about you.
Now … this blog post comes off as negative here. And some of you are going to get your feathers ruffled and clap back with, “I/we don’t do that! How dare you?” Please keep in mind that I’m painting with very broad strokes. I’m generalizing. I’m not calling you out specifically. But I spend time with hundreds and hundreds of board members each year, and some things show up as trends. If my worries below don’t represent you, huzzah! Celebrate. But keep your eyes open, and don’t get complacent.
You’ll also notice that I have included some other people’s worries as well. I reached out to a handful of people that I like and respect to see what they had to say on the topic and have included them (with their permission) as well. (I don’t want you to think that Worry-wart-Kevin is the only one who thinks about this and has concerns.)
When I worry about board members, I worry that …
- They’re not always honest with each other about performance.
- They aren’t willing to have difficult conversations (see above).
- They don’t understand the financials and business models of credit unions well enough.
- They underestimate the challenge of CEO succession planning.
- They will judge their members’ use of credit and other products rather than serve the actual needs of the membership. (“I would never overdraft, or let my credit score drop, so why would they?!”)
- They don’t put in the appropriate effort to do the job (because they’re just volunteers).
- They don’t have a clear enough understanding of the complexity of the business.
- They don’t separate their own professional backgrounds that are sometimes less complex than CU business.
- They undervalue ongoing education about the industry.
- They don’t make enough, or the right targeted effort when trying to recruit new directors.
- Sometimes the response to problems is “we’ve tried absolutely nothing and we’re all out of ideas. (see recruiting)
- They don’t spend enough time on the job (that gets more complex everyday).
- They don’t share the absolute passion that they have for credit unions far enough.
Tim Harrington, TEAM Resources
- They don’t get the urgency for change.
(I don’t need to introduce you to Tim. But he was my first mentor in the credit union governance space and I owe an awful lot to him.)
Don Arkell, CU Lending Advice, LLC, https://culendingadvice.com
- That coming into an economic downturn, they will overreact to ordinary credit losses.
- That they will come back from a conference and derail a plan for the business that was previously agreed upon with management.
- That they will look to the wrong metrics to measure success.
(Don is our “go-to” guy when we have questions about lending or if we need to refer people who need some help. He’s fantastic. He really knows his stuff. He’s been tremendously generous with his knowledge.)
Steve Rick, Chief Economist, CUNA Mutual Group (And credit union board member) www.cunamutual.com
- That as the baby boom generation of board directors retire, the turnover/churn rate of directors is rising. The new board members do not possess the same level of institutional memory of the credit union nor the commitment to the credit union that the prior generation may have exhibited.
(I used to work with Steve at CUNA and he was instrumental in my learning and understanding the complexities of the CU movement and the greater economy. I can’t tell you how much I learned from him while working with him on the CUNA Economics & Investments Conference and then bullying him into doing a monthly video series.)
Matt Fullbrook, Ground Up Governance, https://groundupgovernance.substack.com
- That they don’t all walk into the boardroom with a clear and common understanding of what good governance even means, let alone how to be a great director.
(I stumbled across Matt’s name in a report by Filene.org years ago and made it a point to follow him and read as much as he would print. He’s helped me add tremendous layers of nuance to our governance approach and my understanding. Matt has a new thing going with Ground Up Governance. You HAVE to check it out. It’s tremendous, and often very funny! Who knew you could do that with non-profit governance? And BTW … he’s a hellva bass player. You need to look up his band too!)
Mark Arnold, On the Mark Strategies, https://www.markarnold.com
“When I worry about credit union board members, I worry about three issues:
- Alignment—do they believe in the direction senior leadership is taking the credit union? Please note there is a difference between consensus and alignment. A healthy board does not agree 100%. But a healthy board is aligned.
- Clarity—does the board know where the credit union is going and does the board know what makes its credit union different (without using the words service, member or community). If the board does not know the return it is getting from marketing, they should consider conducting a marketing assessment.
- Communication—how well does the board communicate with each other and with the CEO? And how much time are you spending communicating about strategic rather than tactical items? Successful boards communicate about strategy and don’t spend much time discussing minutia.”
(I’ve known Mark since way back. I hired him a couple of times for CUNA programs and quickly learned how sharp he is. He’s the kind of guy that I’d ask for an email with a couple of sentences of advice and he’d set up a call and talk to me for an hour. When it comes to marketing and branding, that’s who we turn to and refer to. He’s a mensch. I hope that as a Texan he knows what that means. 😉 )
What do you worry about when you worry about credit union board members? We want your input as well, those of you who are out there in the trenches experiencing this on the daily. Share your stories, because we will learn from it. We will help each other to get better all the time.