Why cooperative movements should put a premium on employee engagement.

Guest Blog Post Written by Jim Struble

Before you read ahead, let me start with one big admission… I’m the new guy. Not new to my industry, but new to my credit union, new to my community, and new to my role as CEO. I’d love to say that I’ve done it all and know it all, but I wouldn’t be telling you the truth. I’ve been on the job for just five months and can only recently get to where I need to go in my new city without a maps app. In fact, I agreed to do this blog series months ago… well before I knew how to use the coffeemaker here in the office (it’s a tricky little machine)!

If you made it this far, you may be thinking, ‘Doesn’t this guy know you lose your audience unless you start with all the great things you’ve done to sound credible?’ Well, that was actually a paragraph designed to weed out the weak. Congrats! According to the internet, only 5% of people are interesting and smart enough to make it this far! So, for you cool people – Yes, I have my MBA. Yes, my teams have won national awards. Yes, I’ve spoken at national conferences. Yes, I leap over tall buildings! However, yes, that stuff in the first paragraph is true too.

As with so many in the credit union industry, I arrived on a crooked road. In my past I have been a teacher in rural Minnesota, worked at the Mayo Clinic in cancer research and diagnosis, and have worked at credit unions from the Midwest to the East Coast and back again. And, as anyone worth their salt, I have learned lessons and gained life experiences at every stop along the way.

My time at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN provided me a chance to work for a world-renowned organization with a brand second to none. If you haven’t heard of the Mayo Clinic, please remove the rock you have been hiding under your whole life… you’ll find the cellphone reception is much better up here! Mayo is known for setting the standard for amazing care and innovative thinking when it comes to their patients. If you have something really wrong with you or a loved one, you want to have Mayo in your life asap. While there, I was lucky enough to witness a lesson that will stick with me for the rest of my life. I witnessed a culture that was reflective of its brand.

Let me back up and explain the time period. This was when the Affordable Care Act (the ACA is known to some as ‘Obamacare’) was on the horizon and Mayo had just projected the dramatic impact it would have on their business. Mayo knew they had to change how they worked due to it. It was a major time of uncertainty for their industry and their organization… yet they got through it with a record year for profits and increased the quality of care for their patients! How did they do it? Read on!

Mayo turned to all of their employees; from folks cleaning lab equipment to administrators and asked them to find ways to cut costs and streamline. There was one stipulation to this request… no matter the idea, “The needs of the patient come first.” Those seven words have guided their culture and decision making at Mayo for decades, and when projections looked most dire, they refused to budge from them.

You see, Mayo thrived not because it cut corners and increased prices. It thrived through a time of uncertainty because they didn’t decide to decouple their culture from their brand. They knew doing so would do more harm to the organization than any downturn or regulatory change ever could. The Mayo Clinic’s brand is to provide the highest level of care for their patients, so they will never ask their staff to do anything less. In fact, it is well known within the Mayo halls (and underground subways) that you can halt any idea at any time if you show it doesn’t put the needs of the patient first. THAT is a culture reflecting its brand, and a lesson I will never forget.

The Credit Union industry is also in the midst of a time of uncertainty. Fintech is slicing away at our business, big banks are growing faster than ever, regulations are ever-changing, and Amazon may be looming on the horizon. How will we react? Will we lean into our credit union roots, or will we begin to increase fees and look to price our products to maximize profits from those who can’t afford it?

I would encourage every credit union to take a page out of the Mayo Clinic book! View the challenges of today as an opportunity to further align your culture with the credit union brand. As cooperatives, listening is in our credit union DNA… take this principle to the next level and apply it internally too! Are your employees encouraged to speak up with their ideas? Do you have reasoning, structure, and limits to the feedback vehicles your team has? At a cooperative, they should.

At Electro Savings Credit Union, we launched ‘The Power of You’ program within my first two months to do just that. Our staff is encouraged to submit their ideas on how we can improve profit or decrease costs with the stipulation that their ideas can only be implemented if they “have no negative impact to our members.” If their ideas are chosen, they receive a $250 bonus and (after 6 months) 10% of the projected income or savings for the year! Since rolling out the program we have implemented (or are implementing) two of the ideas, with others being submitted on a regular basis. The ideas selected will save the credit union thousands and pay thousands to our staff! (I invite you to read about our all-staff meeting launching The Power of You and the preview movie trailer we made to get our staff excited prior to it.)

I challenge you to lean into your credit union roots and apply them to how you engage your staff. In a time of uncertainty, there is nothing uncertain about the value your team brings to the table. You owe it to your membership to tap into the cooperative spirit within your organization… after all, you are a credit union!