Leaders Credit Union Makes Space For Collaboration

The Tennessee cooperative creates an internal think tank to seize internal expertise and extend member impact.


Top-Level Takeaways

  • Leaders created a space called the Collab to facilitate collaboration across the enterprise.
  • The initiative has already produced new products, and a member journey focus is emerging.

Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, Leaders Credit Union ($572.3, Jackson, TN) has taken that sentiment to heart.

In the past few months, the big Tennessee cooperative has doubled down on its commitment to members and the organization with its Innovation Lab, an internal think tank located in a space at the credit union’s headquarters dubbed “The Collab.”

Todd Swims, President/CEO, Leaders Credit Union

“We wanted to come out on the other end of the pandemic more prepared, better organized, and with a proactive plan for constant improvement,” says Todd Swims, Leaders’ president and CEO for the past three decades. “We wanted to foster imagination and develop the critical thinking of our employees. To do this, we needed a space to host innovation meetings to look at pain points, revisit process improvement, and gain fresh ideas.”

Leaders also expects the space to play a role in integrating collaboration across the enterprise.

“When it comes to communication across all the working departments, we were missing the mark when introducing new products or revising existing products,” Swims says. “Each department completed its task, but we were missing the piece that pulled it all together.”

Structure And Organization

Leaders formed the Innovation Lab during the same burst of creativity that resulted in Leaders University, a series of courses developed both internally and by outside experts on topics aimed at developing and engaging employees under a growth mindset.

A new staff development program at Leaders Credit Union offers a diverse curriculum taught by internal and external experts. Learn more in “Leaders University Turns Employees Into Financial Champions.”

The lab rests under the marketing department. Brandy Ahlquist, a 23-year employee who took on the newly created title of vice president of experience and innovation in February, manages the lab, ensuring all elements of products or services are clearly laid out and delivery across all channels is flawless.

Ahlquist’s previous roles at Leaders include directing operational support, training, contact center and branch management, collections, and, initially, teller.

“We chose her for her vast experience in various departments and her in-depth knowledge of our processes, procedures, and internal programs,” Swims says.

6 Ways To Initiate Innovation

For innovation to take root, a credit union must first have the right people at the table, says Leaders CEO Todd Swims. “If you don’t have all the information you need and the people to get things done, innovation will never happen,” the CEO says. He also provides seven more tips.

  • Be deliberate.
  • Make actionable plans.
  • Include the right people.
  • Be open to new ideas and processes.
  • Follow through.
  • Follow up and re-evaluate as needed.

Ahlquist, CMO Leigh Anne Bentley, and COO Karen Freeman collaborate weekly on where they can make an impact on member relationships and organizational goals, says Swims, who also suggests projects that merit a “deeper dive.”

Bentley, Ahlquist, and the community engagement team typically lead Innovation Lab projects. Thanks to the work of the lab, the credit union already has rolled out instant-issue credit cards, upgraded its intranet, and created a home loan program for physicians.

No Internal Autonomy. No External Autonomy.

According to Swims, the Innovation Lab is not autonomous. Rather, it facilitates close work between departments on product and service design, pricing recommendations, target markets and messaging, and software and hardware research and development.

It also partners with the training department to ensure the organization understands when processes and products are upgraded, developed, and introduced.

Externally, collaboration among different groups is still the name of the game.

“We use various external advisory boards — two community-based boards and one age-based millennial board — to be sure we’re serving member needs and getting proper feedback,” Swims says. “We use these groups for current product design, branding, and service reviews.”

Consider joining Callahan’s new Impact Network and take advantage of the resources in the Credit Union Impact Center. Both initiatives are designed to help member-owned financial cooperatives focus even more on the credit union difference they make in their communities.

Today’s Impact … And A Look Ahead

Nowadays, the impact a credit union has on its members is a moving target when it comes to measurement. It’s also one that has taken on critical importance.

Leaders at Leaders know this and are evolving how to assess the credit union’s progress as the Innovation Lab and member service in general continue to grow. So far, its assessment includes board reports that showcase updates, improvements, and current projects.

“Our list of accomplishments is already long and includes small changes that make our processes, communications, and products better,” Swims says. “We’ll be working on reporting to look more quantitively as we have timeframes for accurate measurements.”


Data as of 03.31.21

HQ: Jackson, TN
ASSETS: $572.3M
MEMBERS: 56,058
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 23.01%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 13.55%
ROA: 1.75%

The credit union also is focusing on current products it wants to better understand, especially entry points such as mobile banking, website, and physical branches.

Projects include journey mapping and completing a product design worksheet for all products and services to ensure Teachers is offering the best member experience and to verify its procedures are efficient.

“Understanding our members' journey and experiences allows us to be creative and look for ways to improve,” Swims says. “By emphasizing the member experience, we encourage our employees to look for ways to do better, be better, and make a positive difference in the lives of our members.”