It’s that time of the year again. The holidays are behind us, and the decorations are back in the attic. If you have kids, they are (thankfully) back in school. Most people began the new year with great hopes for what they will accomplish in 2017. How about you? Have you set (and already broken!) your own New Year’s resolutions? Are you eating better? Spending less and saving more? Working out more often? Achieving a better balance in your life?
Here’s a New Year’s resolution that we would like to challenge you and your credit union’s leadership to make and keep: Spend 2017 focusing on improving your credit union’s governance and leadership. This resolution has the potential for such amazing impact that you’ll want to extend it permanently.
Many credit union leadership teams spend the lion’s share of their time focusing on financial, fiduciary, and high-level operational concerns: asset growth, ROI, capital ratios, membership, services and, at least once a year, strategic planning. But how often do these leaders pay attention—meaningful attention—to governance? And what is governance, anyway?
We define governance as “steering, directing, influencing or persuading from a position of authority. It deals with the legitimate distribution of authority throughout a system—whether that system is a country, a corporation or a credit union.” That means that for your credit union, you are governing not only when you are using your formal authority (passing policies or voting on procedures), but also when you are using your informal powers of persuasion (encouraging fellow directors to support a new venture or working in constructive partnership with the CEO to fine-tune your strategic priorities).
Because governance involves the “distribution of authority throughout a system,” we encourage you to look beyond the board when you think of who is involved in governing the credit union. Working in constructive partnership to support the holistic governance of the credit union should be the board, supervisory or audit committee, board committees, and the CEO and management team.
In your efforts to improve governance, consider at least these basic components:
Governance assessment. If you haven’t completed an assessment of your credit union’s governance for two or more years, you should. It’s important to check in on your “governance health,” just as you would on your own physical health. An assessment can help you and your board colleagues: (1) develop common ground with each other; (2) push the board and management team to ask better questions and think more strategically; (3) develop a clear road map of how to move forward together; (4) form even more productive relationships among your board, CEO and management team; and (5) ultimately improve your governance and leadership efforts to better serve members. CUES offers a self-assessment tool to help boards evaluate their governance health.
Board member and board officer job descriptions. It’s important to have clear, up-to-date job descriptions for both directors and board officers. Ensure that you review these on a regular basis (at least every two years) for relevancy. The danger of having out-of-date job descriptions (or worse yet, no job descriptions at all) is that board leaders will be falling short of their critical governance responsibilities.
Committee charters. We find that many credit unions do not have charters in place for their committees, and most fail to review their committee structures on a regular basis. Be sure that you are doing both! Board committees, when they are well chartered, staffed and effectively operating, can be one of the most efficient ways to carry out the work of the board. At their worst, they can be a drain on your management team and leave directors feeling underappreciated and overwhelmed.
Board meetings. Review your board meeting agendas, structure and functioning to ensure that you are addressing strategic and governance issues at every meeting. Be sure you are developing agendas that are engaging and generating lively discussions for directors, the CEO and management team. Board meetings are critical. They can make or break the health of your board, so give their structure and functioning the attention they deserve.
If this work seems daunting, don’t be overwhelmed. Take it one step at a time. Perhaps start with a simple online assessment to establish a baseline. Regular evaluation of governance is both vital and doable for credit unions of all sizes. We have seen boards that are in trouble—real trouble—realize the benefits of focusing on governance in as little as six months. When board and management leadership roles are clarified, micro-management decreases, the quality of board meetings improves, committees add more genuine value, an approach to renewing the board’s composition is agreed upon, and the boundary of operational vs. strategic thought is better defined.
For 2017 and beyond, resolve that you will make a commitment with your colleagues to improve your credit union’s governance and leadership—for the health of your board and management team and the good of your members!
Michael Daigneault, CCD, is CEO of Quantum Governance L3C, Vienna, Va., CUES’ strategic provider for governance services. Daigneault has more than 30 years of experience in the field of governance, management, strategy, planning and facilitation, and served as an Executive in Residence at CUES Governance Leadership Institute. Jennie Boden serves as the firm’s managing director of strategic relationships and a senior consultant. She has 25 years of experience in the national nonprofit sector and served as the chief staff officer for two nonprofits before coming to Quantum Governance.