Most companies only embrace dramatic change on their way to a merger or bankruptcy.
At Affinity Plus, a nearly $1 billion credit union based in St. Paul, Minn.,
our experience with sweeping change was a little different. We embraced it when
seemingly all was going well, when our members told us that we were doing a
“good” job and our financial performance matched our industry average.
For many companies, this would have been a sign to continue to coast. For us,
it was a wake up call—not with blaring sirens, but with a welling realization
that we were short-changing our members and ourselves by accepting “good
In fact, “good enough” became our enemy as we looked inward for
ways to achieve our new standard: absolute diligence to serving our members.
We spent the next two years figuring out how to break out of the “good
enough” mold. In the process, we underwent fundamental changes in our
operations, workforce and even business model to focus every facet of the organization
on serving members. By the third year, we achieved significant performance increases,
saw marked improvement in employee commitment, and earned a coveted industry
award for one of the best places to work in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Through it, we learned some important lessons:
- Set your expectations high and communicate them clearly on a daily basis,
- Hire the right people and engage them in the company’s mission, and
- Establish systems to empower and align employees with the company’s
Set Clear Expectations
Credit unions have more impetus than most businesses to provide superior service
to their customers. They do, after all, own the institution by charter.
We, too, had always focused on providing good service. At least, that’s
what we thought until we read through the detailed comments from our customer
surveys. They revealed that we hadn’t managed to build strong relationships
and trust among our members.
We debated this issue at every company level and came up with a critical focus:
MOE (members, organization, employees), which we used during our retooling process
to communicate our commitment to members throughout the organization.
MOE became our philosophy, as well as a decision-making matrix for all employees—from
tellers to the CEO. Whenever we faced difficult choices, we would weigh the
interest of our members first, then our organization and finally our employees.
Hire the Right People
As with our priorities, we aimed to hire employees who would value our members
first. But, like most companies, we focused on people who performed well in
their areas of expertise. During our transformation, we concluded that this
was exactly the wrong way to continue building our workforce.
After lengthy discussion, our executive management team agreed that we didn’t
want a “Dunkin’ Donuts” workforce—employees who came
to work and went through the motions of getting the job done day after day.
We wanted to inspire passion for our mission and dedication to serving our members
in every one of our employees.
We started hiring based on new criteria: talent (vs. experience.) We chose
to train these new recruits for the payoff of a better fit with our new culture
and mission. But we didn’t leave that up to chance, either.
During the hiring process and throughout their employment period, we established
clear expectations tied directly to the company’s goals, set measures
and, most importantly, established a system to maintain alignment on a daily
Establish Alignment System
To help us implement and maintain our new approach, we employed a piece of software
called Connections Online, an organizational management suite from Cardwell
that creates a virtual blueprint of a company, and helps align employees and
their myriad projects with the company’s strategic goals.
Connections Online linked every employee via their desktops, their PDAs and
over the Web in a system that aligns daily work with strategic goals. Through
real-time, formalized discussion, Connections Online engaged employees in our
decision-making processes. With this immediacy and connectedness, employees
really began to understand the company’s strategy—not only that
members came first, but why they came first—and their roles in supporting
The software also helped us track and measure projects across the company.
Moreover, Connections Online helped us measure the performance of individual
project team members, which came in handy during our monthly “gut check”
meetings with employees. Invaluably, it also made performance reviews and evaluations
simple and transparent.
It’s been two years and we have numbers to back up our successful, albeit
demanding, endeavor. When employees were asked in a 2004 survey, “Do I
know what’s expected of me?” more than 64% of employees said they
strongly agreed, compared with 37% in 2002. In addition, 59% of employees strongly
agreed their job was important to them, compared with 20% in 2002. We have also
improved our “share of wallet” of our members’ financial services
needs by 16%.
It’s been a tremendous learning process. But whenever someone gives us
kudos, I immediately respond that this is an ongoing process which never stops.
We will never completely arrive, because when we think we have, it’s time
to change again.
As for me, I can truly say that it’s inspiring to come into work surrounded
by people driven by the same goals, who know why they’re there and who
actually want to come to work every day.
For more information on how your credit union can break through the “good
enough” mold, contact Jim Cardwell or Karla Norwood at 800-395-1410 or