Inject Attitude Into Your Platitudes

Best practices when changing a credit union culture.


The one thing you can count on in life is change. Financial service providers experience change by the hour, minute, even second. Money management is not a static business; you should always count on change.

In the past year, Callahan & Associates has repositioned its organizational structure and management roles. Instead of a single CEO, our senior management team now operates in a partnership model. We based the decision on our in-house talent and organizational goals, which include developing new ways to provide greater value to our clients. The reorganization helps us achieve this by allowing us to more quickly develop and introduce solutions to help credit unions succeed in today’s economic landscape. As we near our sixth month of operation under this change, we believe we have put ourselves in a strong position.

For us, changing the culture at Callahan wasn’t so much about reinvention as it was about redistribution. We changed roles and responsibilities at every level — from leadership to sales, applications development to content production, the workplace dynamic shifted for all of Callahan’s 50-odd employees. We had the building blocks of a strong culture already in place, so we focused on a few aspects of our business process to satisfy and benefit our greatest resource, our people.

This process was not without its challenges, however, and provided our leadership team with learning opportunities on how to best establish, communicate, and nurture a workplace culture. What follows are some lessons we learned from this experience and how they translate to culture building at credit unions.

It Starts With People

One area in which Callahan and credit unions are likely to find common ground is in the understanding that good employees are a company’s greatest resource. This is just as true in Washington state as it is in Washington, DC. In fact, people are the greatest differentiator between a credit union and a bank. Member-owned and locally focused as they are, credit unions strive to provide personalized banking and deepen relationships with members.

In the January-February issue of the Harvard Business Review, Patty McCord, former chief talent officer at Netflix wrote an article called "How Netflix Reinvented HR," that provides insights into the steadily growing company’s — 29 million worldwide subscribers — organizational culture.

One of the first bits of advice McCord offers is that the best perk an organization can offer employees is excellent colleagues. Employees work, she says, to the level of their peers.

Identify what you as an organization are trying to accomplish — your organizational goals — and tailor your hiring practices around the kinds of people who are suited to achieve those results. Talented and motivated employees will look for the same qualities from their co-workers. Similarly wired co-workers will bring out the best in one another and establish a productive and competitive workplace environment.

The Trust Factor

High-stress environments are often not the areas in which employees do their best work. Certainly, it can motivate individuals to complete assignments, but completion is not the same as quality.

Many factors can make an environment stressful, and different employees respond differently to various stimuli. However, showing employees they have the support of superiors can go a long way in building a quality work environment and encouraging quality work.

There’s a common-yet-misguided belief that Toyota Motor Company doesn’t fire its employees. That might not be entirely accurate, but the so-called “Toyota Way” does encourage respect for people. For example, the company takes whatever steps necessary to avoid lays off within its workforce, opting to reduce plant operating hours or cut management bonuses before firing employees. Additionally, Toyota uses a stop-the-line system on its assembly line that employees are encouraged, even obligated, to push when they see a design defect. Activating the system slows the production process, but it also helps fix mistakes before they reach the customer.

In demonstrating its respect for people, Toyota helps de-stress a hectic operation in which a single mistake is magnified by the sheer scale of production. It also encourages a culture of mutual trust. Job security and the freedom to acknowledge mistakes build employee confidence in their relationship with the company. And Toyota, who knows employees are putting forth good work and resolving bad work, offers employees a desirable level of responsibility and ownership in their work.

Be Directive, But Open

Cultural change is a measured and ongoing process. No single change can fundamentally alter a culture. Instead, managers must work to instill culture from the top down. They must also hold employees accountable in supporting the direction they are given.

In order to achieve certain results, leaders would do well to establish and clearly articulate goals to employees. Doing so will guide employees in management’s intended direction while giving them the freedom to make their own decisions. Give your employees goals, but understand they have might have their own process for achieving them.

Netflix’s culture is defined by common sense and employee freedoms, both of which credit unions heavily rely upon in their own operations. But the things that make an employee excellent are subjective. They differ from company to company and are contingent upon in-house organizational goals. McCord suggests telling new hires what is expected of them both in terms of culture and production and then throwing them into the ringer. Upfront, direct communication like this positions employees to be successful against any institution’s grading metrics. The cream will rise to the top, and those who don’t fit into the culture will fall.

“If you create a clear expectation of responsible behavior, most employees will comply,” McCord says.

Be The Authority

When Howard Schultz took over as CEO of Starbucks, he instituted a transformation agenda centered on what he called his “seven big moves.” The first applies to any member-facing institution, but it is especially relevant to financial services providers such as credit unions who manage and safeguard a precious commodity: money. 

Every employee of the ubiquitous coffee seller is tasked with being “the undisputed coffee authority.” Translate and apply this to credit unions.

Credit unions provide services related to the management of member finances and money — that’s quite a task in a universe full of ever-changing rules and regulations. It’s the responsibility of every employee of the credit union to be well-versed in the particulars of their job description, whether that applies to the intricacies of a virtual teller machine or knowing the yield on a two-year certificate. Employees are always the experts: From “will I like the caramel macchiato?” to “walk me through the mortgage application process.”

Expecting that expertise from your workforce generates a culture characterized by capability, proficiency, and achievement. Not coincidently, these are all key characteristics of employees at successful corporations and cooperatives.

Change Is Difficult

Changing a culture is a simple idea that is challenging to implement. It requires the cooperation and buy in from all employees to create a single, unified group. In the article “Managing Change, One Day at a Time,” which appeared in the July-AugustHarvard Business Review, Keith Ferrazzi, CEO of the consulting and coaching company Ferrazzi Greenlight, says, “organizations can’t change their culture unless individual employees change their behavior — and changing behavior is hard.”

It’s hard, but not impossible. And because tracking shifts in culture can be difficult, Ferrazzi suggests tracking shifts in practice or production. For example, look at how well your employees are working together to meet the goals the new culture was designed to reach.

Changing culture is a process that everyone must contribute to daily. Certainly we’ve worked at it here at Callahan. We call ourselves “One Callahan” as a reminder that it takes a team to achieve our overall goals. Our departments are all connected. Our data and analytics team can help the media department just as the media department can help our sales team.

It’s a culture we’ve tried to establish through our leadership transition, through the aforementioned lessons we’ve learned — among others. It’s one we hope to continue into the future.