When Gary Wallace stepped down as CEO of Commonwealth Credit Union ($1.4B, Frankfort, KY) after 35 years of service, the credit union named Karen Harbin as his successor. Harbin was a 26-year veteran of the credit union who had held the roles of executive vice president, vice president of finance, and chief accountant, but the new leader wasn’t interested in sustaining the status quo.
When Harbin took the helm in early 2012, she had her eyes set on creating a culture that united staff around a single vision and empowered every department and team member to maximize their strengths.
The cooperative worked with the Disney Institute in 2014 to create a new corporate culture, which it named Team 1. It created the position of Culture & Values Officer in April 2017 to ensure the new culture didn’t simply take root but flourish. Travis Flora is the first one to hold that role.
Travis Flora, Culture & Values Officer, Commonwealth Credit Union
“I was one of the two dozen ‘champions’ that worked with the Disney Institute to create this culture,” Flora says. “That’s important to point out — our culture was created by us, for us. A common thought was that the new culture would last until the initial enthusiasm wore off, and then we’d go back to the way things were. This position was created to make sure that didn’t happen.”
And today? That culture is still going strong. Case in point: When Flora spoke to CreditUnions.com last month, he had just stepped away from an internal celebration for a successful lending promotion. The executive team was cooking and serving a hearty breakfast to staff that included biscuits and gravy, bacon, scrambled eggs, pancakes, and more. A simple, yet powerful reminder of what the Commonwealth culture is all about.
Here, Flora talks about how his position has evolved and the unprecedented growth Commonwealth Credit Union has achieved by fully embracing Team 1.
Now that you've held this culture role for several years, would you say the credit union has fully adopted Team 1?
TF: For the most part, yes. Our leaders and team members know what to expect every day. There are no surprises.
As a result of our culture change, our organization has achieved unprecedented growth — including member growth, loan growth, and two mergers with smaller credit unions — which has required us to work together as a team. I don't know that we would have been able to accomplish as much prior to our Team 1 culture.
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However, there is still a learning curve for new employees, especially those who join us through mergers. Everyone knows what words like “communication” mean in general, but they don't know what it means to us. It takes new people awhile to understand our shared vocabulary and values.
How do you onboard new employees so they understand the Team 1 culture?
TF: An employee’s first day on the job is Culture Day. We start at 8 a.m., bring lunch in, and have videos, games, and activities that give employees a bird’s-eye view of our culture. We want them to understand how it all fits together and how their role plays a part. The training they receive after that feeds off what they are exposed to on Culture Day.
One of the games we play is “create a superhero” where players take their initials, choose a superhero name, and describe their superpowers. We learn a lot about a person’s values through what their superhero would do. Are they the type to rush into the fire and try to help others? If so, that individual is probably going to have a good career here. It’s a fun day, and we can immediately tell if there is a culture fit.
We just finished our latest employee engagement survey, and the response rate excites me. Just about everyone answered because, honestly, staff trusts our culture.
How do you track the effectiveness of Team 1?
TF: We do new hire follow-up surveys at the 30- and 60-day marks. I also get out and talk with people and do lot of relationship building. We have branch huddles just about every day and go over our key values. There are about 30 words that mean something unique to us, and we use that time to reinforce our shared vocabulary.
We just finished our latest employee engagement survey, and the response rate excites me. Just about everyone answered because, honestly, staff trusts our culture. Most of the feedback is overwhelmingly positive. However, even negative responses tend to be constructive criticism. In fact, we were recently named one of the best places to work using a survey that mirrors our own and had 94% employee engagement.
What’s changed about your position as the Team 1 Culture has matured?
TF: My position is constantly evolving based on the needs of the credit union. We’re always looking for what area needs a little love. For example, we noticed in surveys that communication was not what we wanted it to be. Staff members felt like they didn’t always know what was going on or have a voice in decisions. We looked at that and found we weren’t communicating our process well enough, which led to a perception issue.
Over the past year, we've improved our communication efforts by shooting videos with our senior team or those involved with various projects. We try to give the staff a heads-up regarding who's on teams, what they are working on, and why — how it fits into the credit union’s brand, culture, and mission. The communication rating improved as a result, and we plan to expand our internal video communications.
CU QUICK FACTS
Commonwealth Credit Union
HQ: Frankfort, KY
Data as of 09.30.19
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 9.9%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 7.9%
I also was involved with the recent relaunch of our apparel store. We still have CCU Basics items to wear from year to year, but we introduced more fun with an annual design collector’s series. Instead of being policy-based like in the past, we wanted to bring in new life with cool designs for T-shirts, infinity scarves, and even branded socks.
But the biggest change in my position has been the amount of coaching and training I’m doing now. I work with our leaders, both new and existing, and serve as mentor for our new young professionals group. There is a lot of enthusiasm in this voluntary group.
How do you ensure all departments and branches remain culturally aligned?
TF: It’s impossible for me to get everywhere I need to with the 24 counties we serve, so we have a culture champions program. We have reps in every branch and department that report back to me. These individuals plan a fun Team 1 event in every area, every month. It can be something simple like a food day or national wear blue day. We encourage one per month, but some groups are doing five or six events per month to increase engagement.
The other side to the culture champions is that they are my eyes and ears. They let me know when they notice an issue, which helps focus my attention. I couldn't do my job without their assistance. They are all volunteers, but it is a position that requires an active commitment to the culture.
Do you have examples of the culture not being fully embraced? How did you correct this?
TF: We did have friction between member-facing lending staff and underwriters, so we created a monthly All Things Lending meeting to review loan decisions and discuss whether we handled them correctly or if there was anything we missed. We've had that for a year and the open communication has removed the last of the silos.
Anything else we have experienced has been unintentional. As new employees and managers have come from outside sometimes, there can be oversights. In those cases, we focus on service recovery.
What advice do you have for other credit unions trying to make a big culture change?
TF: Get your leadership on board, especially the CEO and senior team. If they are not 100% committed, then it will not work. Existing leaders must change first and role model the new culture. Many staff members model themselves after the weakest leader.
Also, listen to your staff and create a culture everyone supports. You cannot dictate culture to people; they need a voice.
Lastly, get some outside, impartial perspective. We worked with the Disney Institute. They are wonderful, but there are other options. In my position, I try to remain neutral even though I’m part of the organization. Acting as our Switzerland ensures everyone feels comfortable raising their issues.
This interview has been edited and condensed.