CitizensFirst Credit Union* ($384.3M; Oshkosh, WI) serves more than 30,000 members who live, work, or worship within any of 13 counties in America’s Dairyland. The financial cooperative, which started in 1937 as Wisconsin Axel Credit Union, rebranded in 2008 to keep up with the changing times and has made collaboration a key component of its strategy for the past five years. Now, employees at all levels volunteer on innovation teams the credit union assembles as needed to address problems, identify solutions, and weigh-in on new products and services. The process encourages input from across the credit union’s internal talent pool and gives team members an opportunity to become more involved in the institution while developing valuable leadership, communication, and presentation skills.
“We were rebranding and building our new corporate office, and we thought it was the opportune time to start involving our team members a lot more,” says Audra Mead, vice president of human resources, who joined the CitizensFirst team just before the rebrand. “We have talent and skills internally, and we don’t necessarily need to go outside the organization.”
Volunteers from tellers to executives comprise the innovation teams. The credit union relies on these collaborative teams throughout the organization on almost everything it implements or rolls out and on things it is considering for future development or experiences, Mead says.
The teams vary in size and quantity, and team leaders, who are selected by their team members, are responsible for planning meetings and keeping brainstorming sessions on track. Multiple teams brainstorm solutions to the same problem and then present their ideas to the executive team. For example, when the credit union was auditing its products and services offerings in 2011, it created four innovation teams with a total of 45 employees. CitizensFirst had approximately 115 employees at the time, so nearly 40% of its employee base volunteered to participate in the project. Teams typically met once a week for a half hour before branches opened, during lunches, or at the end of the day. This lasted three to four months, and at the end of each month, teams presented two concepts to senior management. By the end of the process, the four teams had presented 20 concepts.
Although CitizensFirst has served Oshkosh for more than 75 years, it is relatively new to the Fond du Lac community, so it hired employees who are engrained in the Fond du Lac community and understand its needs.
“We serve two communities, so we like to see team members representing both communities,” Mead says. “Communities can be different and they have different opinions, concepts, and ideas. We strive to have an eclectic group so innovation is not same-mind thinking.”
Having representation from both communities on innovation teams keeps its services balanced. It also helps the branches stay connected and work better together as one team toward one goal, according to Mead. Synergy is also helpful when creating new products and services because cross-community team members are more familiar with their members’ demographics and their willingness to accept different products and services.
At the onset of the products and services audit, CitzensFirst enrolled all innovation team members in a two-day training session conducted by an out-of-office consultant. Training focused on understanding and identifying with the credit union’s target market. Innovation team members also learned how to create team objectives and develop team strategies. For this project, it was important to involve employees from all levels, especially tellers and other front-line staff members.
“They are the ones who know what our members need and they talk to our members every day, so their perspective is more valuable than somebody who may come in from an outside organization,” Mead says. “Then they’re able to go back and communicate things to their [co-workers]. There’s buy-in; there’s support from the get-go.”
To make this strategy work, communication is key. Employees must be aware of opportunities to volunteer, staff must be up to date on the workings of innovation teams, and senior management must communicate its wants and goals to innovation teams. It starts and ends with communication, and as CitizensFirst moves forward in serving the people of Wisconsin, input, innovation, and collaboration are important at all levels.
Update: In March 2015, CitizensFirst rebranded as Verve, A Credit Union.