Reaching New Heights

illustration of people forming a human ladder to spell the word TEAM
Contributing Writer

11 minutes

Seeking ways to more fully engage and utilize its employees and sustain the organization’s ongoing growth, Guardian Credit Union devised a novel strategy.

One of the positives of business growth—besides the obvious—is that it’s often accompanied by new innovative strategies and processes to better manage the expansion. This has certainly been the case for $320 million/38,000-member Guardian Credit Union

Originally formed in 1958 to serve the Alabama National Guard, the credit union’s corporate office is in Montgomery, Ala., with several Alabama locations. A 12th branch is scheduled to open first quarter 2016. The CU has 132 full-time equivalents. Spurring growth was the merging of Guardian CU with Comala Credit Union in 2010, says CUES member Heath Harrell, president/CEO. Emphasizing consumer lending—the “original intent of credit unions,” says Harrell—as the CU began doing several years ago, also contributed.

As the organization grew, Harrell says the senior team began realizing change was in order. “We came to the understanding that we do not have enough time in the day to do everything, while we have our entire credit union full of dedicated employees who are excited to take on projects that play a major role in moving the credit union forward.”

In addition to making better use of employees’ talents, senior managers were looking for ways to foster engagement and empowerment, says Harrell. The solution they devised was the High-Performance Team, or HPT, concept.

What’s an HPT?

“An HPT is a team of employees from various departments that are tasked to do very specific projects,” Harrell explains. “HPTs actually take on all aspects of operations. We run three teams of eight to 12 people at all times.”

The HPTs first kicked off in January 2015 with four teams. But after the first series, the CU reduced this by one, feeling three better fit its needs. This number also put less pressure on the CU’s branches since each one typically has a person on an HPT. Teams generally come together for 90 days and then close out, although there’s one team (focusing on communication) that’s ongoing. There’s always an even number of members on a team.

“The team is one unit, but inside each team, team members have to work on different tasks to be successful,” Harrell explains. “The teams sub-divide into twos—we call them ‘swim buddies’—to complete tasks, creating a sub-accountability to each other as well as to the whole team.”

Branch manager Charlie Dickey served as a member on two phases of the G-Force team. “G-Force is the communications team that always exists,” he says. “Fifty percent of the members rotate off after a 90-day phase, but the team itself is always ongoing. With 50 percent rotation, there’s always continuity from one phase to the next.”

Dickey and his “swim buddies” had numerous responsibilities. Some of these involved sending out various communications to all employees—via emails, articles, slide shows, etc.—updating co-workers on the status of the HPTs, mentioning their successes, accomplishments and so on; writing scripts and developing role-playing opportunities to get the word out about the HPTs; and promoting the strategy in positive, impactful ways to generate curiosity, excitement and buy-in.

“Some of the things I participated in took me out of my comfort zone,” Dickey recalls. “I learned a lot of new technology skills from my teammates, and also how to work together with others who have different things to offer.”

One of the first major tasks a new team must tackle is creating a name for their group, says Harrell, explaining that this provides a good exercise on negotiating and compromise. So far the teams have included:

G-Force: The aforementioned communications team. “Their purpose is to evangelize the Guardian CU strategy and promote other HPTs, keeping the entire credit union up to date on all things HPT,” says Harrell.

The Deloreans: Tasked with evaluating branch hours, comparing them to competitors in each market. “They presented the new hours for each branch and the recommendations were implemented in the following 60 days,” says Harrell. In some cases, where the data supported it, branch hours were extended.

The Ice Sculptures (phase one) and Nucleus (phase two): “The team uploaded forms and created spaces on a new intranet; phase two finished the uploads, trained everyone on how to use it and rolled it out,” he says.

Other HPT projects involved revamping the employee review process (the Review Renegades team) and exploring the feasibility of offering a mobile check register for members who use only a debit card (the Guardians of the Registry team; read more about this team in the box at left.).

“The HPTs have already made a huge impact on Guardian CU,” says Harrell. “The teams have revealed better ways to do things, better hours to serve our members, better employee reviews and evaluations, better mobile banking solutions and a better way to communicate via a new intranet. We anticipate working all employees into an HPT.”

The HPT Process

Guardian CU began by working with an outside consulting company, CUES Supplier member Extreme Arts + Science, based in Seattle, that helped them develop guidelines for how the teams work, says Harrell.

Sponsors, composed of upper management, created a charter for each team, which outlined what was needed for each team to be successful, he says. These charters also stated what a team didn’t need to spend time on, sharpening both focus and performance. For example: The G-Force Team, which is the communications team, doesn’t deal with communication unrelated to the HPT strategy. They are also not responsible for general morale-building nor are they a general-project update committee. Another example is the Product & Services team, which is not responsible for products and services pricing, fee schedule or rates.

Then, in a process still in place today:

  • Sponsors selected the team leads for the HPT they were assigned to. “Projects cannot fall under a department they’re responsible for,” says Harrell of the HPT sponsors.
  • Sponsors met with team leads and reviewed the charters.
  • Once that was accomplished, the team leads were tasked with building their teams. Sponsors were available to provide advice, but it was the team lead’s responsibility to recruit people for the team.

The CU’s top leadership identifies and prioritizes when a new team is needed based on the CU’s strategic plan and focus.

Chief Financial Officer Becky Lee, a CUES member, is currently serving as a sponsor for the Products and Services team, the HPT charged with reviewing existing products, services and ancillary services, and with recommending changes and improvements, she says. Lee acted as sponsor for two other teams prior to this.

“The sponsor is an advocate for the team, communicating with the HPT lead and acting as a liaison between the team and senior leadership,” she explains.

Watching employees advance in their skills and confidence has been one of the biggest positives for her, says Lee. She has also enjoyed seeing employees from different branches and departments bonding and gaining a new appreciation for each other and a stronger sense of unity.

“Individual employees feel more a part of the CU as a whole,” she says. “They see the ways their jobs relate to jobs other people perform.”

Harrell says they encountered some obstacles but nothing that couldn’t be overcome. “We didn’t have to change how the employees work,” he says. “We did have to figure out how to make time for teams to meet. Sometimes teams meet in person (at the corporate headquarters) and sometimes over the phone or [via] GoToMeeting.”

Scheduling and finding time for teams to meet was a major concern of team members who were anxious about fitting in their everyday responsibilities with those required by the HPT. Branch managers worried about HPT members being away from their branch for meetings. Harrell addressed these concerns by explaining that HPTs were here to stay and that they now should be considered part of their “real” jobs. Working team meetings around busier days has alleviated the branch managers’ fears that customer service would be negatively impacted.

“I expect we’ll always have some challenges,” Harrell reflects. “HPTs involve developing people, leadership skills and teamwork. It will never be easy but it will strengthen our credit union.

“I think HPTs would work great for any CU willing to let go of control and completely dedicate to the program,” he continues. “You have to commit to it from the CEO on down because at first, only a handful of people will want to be on a team. Persistence and telling the success stories of the teams is what makes it really work.” cues icon

Success Through ‘Failure’

Karen Ghames, underwriting manager at $320 million/38,000-member Guardian Credit Union, served as team lead for the Guardians of the Registry High-Performance Team, the group tasked with devising a way to develop a mobile check register for those members who only use a debit card.

This was initially conceptualized as an online check register for members who don’t actually write checks or keep a checkbook.

The concept was that the credit union would create an app that could connect to its online banking platform so members could keep an online check register when they used their debit card.

Ultimately, after researching different options, the team advised against offering this capability, as the cost to create such an app didn’t seem worth the expense.

“They thought their team failed, but in our eyes, it was a great success,” says CUES member Heath Harrell, president/CEO of the credit union. “The best thing about the project and the greatest win-win was that they came back to the senior team and said it wasn’t worth it. Their recommendation saved us a lot of money and time.”

Among other duties, as team lead Ghames was responsible for establishing the team, scheduling meetings, identifying project milestones and timelines, monitoring progress and managing the team through any changes or difficulties.

“I also met periodically with the HPT sponsors,” she recalls. “And I was responsible for presenting our findings to the senior leadership team at the pre-close and receiving their feedback. The next-to-last task was helping my team with what to present at the final closeout. The final—and most fun part of being the lead—was planning an outing for the team celebration.”

Although balancing the day-to-day job duties with working on the HPT wasn’t always easy—“That’s where prioritizing and time management come in,” says Ghames—the juggling act proved worth it, moving her out of her comfort zone and giving her the chance to work and bond with employees she ordinarily wouldn’t have encountered, strengthening relationships across the board.

She also developed an awareness of and appreciation for the effort required to implement new products and services for members.

Ghames mentions a seminar she once attended where the Patch Adams movie—
a semi-biographical film starring Robin Williams as American physician Hunter Doherty—was used to emphasize the following point:

“When a gentleman in the psych ward holds up four fingers and asks, ‘What do you see?’ do you look straight at the four fingers or do you see what is beyond the four fingers? The HPT helps you to grow that skill,” she explains. “Do you look at the task or do you look at the bigger picture beyond that task?”

Changing the Future

Mandy Lee’s first High-Performance Team experience was as a member of the G-Force, Guardian Credit Union’s communications team. Lee, currently the lending center manager for the credit union, was involved in phase one of this team, which is the one constant HPT in the organization.

“As a team member, I got the satisfaction of working with an awesome group of co-workers that I may not have had the ability to work with before to achieve a goal that has been set before me,” says Lee of the position. “As a member, this may include gaining new skill sets, strengthening my teamwork abilities and gaining an understanding of how my participation in decision-making
on an HPT benefits the organization.”

After her stint with this HPT, Lee served on another HPT, The Review Renegades, tasked with creating a new employee performance review system. This time she acted as team lead.

“The HPT lead has two primary responsibilities: to ensure the project is completed on time, within budget, and that it meets its objectives; and to develop the team members through the completing of the project,” she explains. “As team lead, you also have to hold each team member accountable for their goal and let them know what’s expected.”

The HPT strategy presents certain challenges; for example, working around everyone’s schedule and finding the time to meet can be tough. Good time-management skills, organization and the ability to plan strategically are essential if members are going to get their regular jobs done while serving on an HPT, Lee says, adding that developing these skills was one of the many positives that came out of her HPT experience.

As for those credit unions that may be considering adopting a similar strategy, Lee has this advice:

“Do it. It’s so rewarding to employees,” she says. “The senior leadership team is investing in their employees and empowering them to work together as a team toward a goal that can change the future of the credit union.”

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, California.

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