Article

Unlocking Leadership Potential

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Contributing Writer

9 minutes

Employees hoping to ascend to the next level of management require development and support to succeed.

The prospect of promoting a valued employee to a new position is appealing—the credit union stands to benefit by retaining a knowledgeable employee, and the promotion presents opportunities for the employee’s growth and skills enhancement. But accurately identifying whether someone is ready to assume greater responsibilities can prove challenging.

“It’s common for many organizations to promote high-performing individual contributors into management roles. That’s not inherently a bad practice; on the contrary, it’s laudable. That said, often what makes someone a strong performer in an individual role doesn’t automatically make someone a great manager,” says Rich Gravelin, director of strategic alliances for Harvard Business Publishing. Headquartered in Brighton, Massachusetts, the not-for-profit organization is owned by Harvard University and affiliated with Harvard Business School.

Gravelin’s assessment can be true for both individuals under consideration for a first-time foray into management or middle managers, he notes.

“Similar to the challenges credit unions face when identifying first-level managers, [those who are] selecting high-potential candidates for senior roles need to recognize just that—the potential someone displays to become a leader,” Gravelin says. “These roles require an ability to think strategically and shape culture—among many other things—and that typically is different than the role a line manager fulfills.”

Identifying Potential Leaders

Jennifer Stangl, director of professional development for CUES, says credit unions can better their chances of identifying the right person by understanding the leadership qualities important to the organization as well as to the position.

“This can be done by creating a competency model or key knowledge, skills and abilities of leaders,” she explains. “Once this is available, it makes it easier for current leaders to reflect on the capabilities of their team and who might have potential.”

Then, the organization should offer development opportunities aligned to the desired behaviors and competencies necessary to successfully lead at the different levels and to support the credit union’s mission, Stangl continues. Also important are focused development plans aligning an individual’s career goals with those critical competencies.

For someone under consideration for promotion, regardless of managerial experience, Stangl says it is important to understand the person’s current capabilities, growth potential and desire to continue advancing within the organization.

“Bias can play a big role in identifying individuals for promotions or career advancements,” she cautions. “Promoting the wrong individual can create turnover on a team … and lowered performance and results.”

Of course, identification is only the first step; if these employees are to succeed in their new roles, providing the tools and support they need is critical.

Jennifer Stangl
Director of Professional Development
Bias can play a big role in identifying individuals for promotions or career advancements.

Developing First-Time Managers

“Not all new managers will have the same development needs, but the typical first-time-manager training often treats them as if they do. This can lead to making the wrong investments in that person’s development,” says Gravelin. Instead, credit unions should tailor training to assist the manager in achieving the organization’s goals.

“Development should be ongoing as opposed to episodic,” he continues. “Give new managers space to learn. Support them when they make mistakes and encourage them to become continuous learners.”

For example, employees of $353 million Heartland Credit Union, Madison, Wisconsin, can participate in an emerging leaders group, says Angela Hanson, SVP/chief innovation officer. Heartland CU’s 83 full-time and two part-time employees serve 22,500 members. The employee-run group is open to all and provides external training opportunities, networking and social events (currently on hold because of COVID-19) with leaders inside the credit union. 

Front-line employees can also take advantage of a four-phase program that prepares them to become a universal service representative. In each phase, participants receive training within the different areas of the organization.

“[The program] allows employees to work with departments cross-functionally,” Hanson explains. “This also creates better insight into future career opportunities for staff and gives our department managers a look into the employees’ interests and skills.”

Those hoping to move to a management position can take part in Heartland CU’s manager training program. Designed to teach skills “in a fun and unique format,” she says, it also includes a 12-week innovation project similar to the i3 program from the Filene Research Institute.

“Building this program into our leadership training gives employees the chance to show their creativity through ideation, to create cohesion with peers to move a project forward, to show their perseverance for taking on a project on top of their current workload and the chance to build their presentation skills by presenting their project to our executive team,” Hanson says. “Acquiring these skills will develop a more successful leader.”

$885 million Credit Union West, Glendale, Arizona, also provides training, development and mentoring opportunities for employees who have their eye on moving into management. The credit union has 182 full-time and nine part-time employees serving over 77,000 members, says Cathy Olague, VP/marketing and learning development.

Consider the CU’s three-day leadership development program. Designed with ServiStar Consulting, Franklin, Tennessee, the comprehensive program covers topics like key attributes and skills of highly effective managers, delegation, team building, leadership exercises and more. The program also includes instructor-led training and content from CUES.

Future leaders are identified and suggested by managers at Credit Union West every year; recommendations are then reviewed by senior and executive management to confirm candidates have the necessary commitment and potential, says Olague. In 2019, nine employees participated.

Employees can also acquire, via the intranet, customized development plans based on their career objectives through the CU West Professional Development Center. 

“Our L&D team will work with the employee and manager to identify career growth goals,” Olague explains. “The next step is creating a professional development plan using a variety of resources, such as the CUES Learning Portal and pathways and job shadowing.” Employees have the opportunity to specify whether they want training that is focused on “proficiency/enrichment (growing in place); cross-functional (moving over within their teams); lateral (moving across the organization) or advancing (moving upwards).”

A new program launching this year is the “Day in the Life Program.” Taking a formal, structured approach to ensure consistency across the organization, this program will allow participants to experience a workday based on their career aspirations, giving them exposure they may not have had to a particular area of the business, says Olague.  

Moving Middle Managers Ahead

Olague describes the organization’s business strategy as one purposefully designed to support and encourage employee growth.

“Team members from all levels participate in or lead project teams to successfully launch new products, services or efficiency initiatives,” she explains. “This involvement propels employees in personal and career development by having a voice and a feeling of inclusiveness with each successful implementation.”

Stangl considers challenging employees with these kinds of opportunities and exposing them to new responsibilities a best practice for the training and development of managers. Feedback and coaching are also important for employee development, particularly in terms of understanding how their work is benefiting the organization and their career growth.

“Often leaders can give a project or task to an individual knowing it will support their development without sharing this information with the individual,” she says. “Providing the ‘why’ for a project can be helpful with engagement, motivation and awareness of future growth opportunities.”

Organizations can take the same approach when readying a middle manager for increased responsibilities or a new position, Stangl says. Create a development plan, review the person’s strengths and areas of opportunities, and establish goals aligned to those of the organization and the individual. And look ahead.

“Be sure that as an organization, you understand the expectations and competencies for leaders at this level and the next level to support growth and recognize strengths and gaps,” she says. “Be cognizant of offering development opportunities for this population, including formal training and experiential opportunities.”

For instance, this year, Credit Union West will unveil a new program for middle managers who want to advance their careers to the senior or executive leader level. Olague says the details are still being worked out but anticipates the CU West Corporate Leadership Development Program will take the form of a six-month manager immersion program where participants will spend time in each critical area of the organization. An executive management panel will review the leadership recommendations and interview the candidates.

Heartland CU uses career mapping to identify middle managers who may be poised to move up. Once identified, Hanson says the strategy is to involve them in critical projects and regularly meet with them, providing a forum for the sharing of ideas and receiving input. They’re also urged to get involved in activities outside their credit union roles, such as CU advocacy and volunteering, participating in CU committees (such as the innovation committee or the employee advisory council, both giving direct access to executive team members) and to seek industry certifications. 

What does Hanson think is important to keep in mind when developing the skills and talents of middle managers?

“Encourage them to step outside of their comfort zones,” she advises. “This is where the true growth will evolve. Our environment is vastly changing around us. Great leaders need to become comfortable living in a fluid environment.”   

A New Member Benefit

CUES has launched a new member benefit, Harvard ManageMentor, an online tool designed to assist in the development of credit union employees at all levels. Developed in partnership with Harvard Business Publishing, Harvard ManageMentor provides access to over 40 self-paced courses, says Jennifer Stangl, CUES director of professional development.

“Each course offers concise lessons with videos from Harvard University faculty and other trusted experts, reflections and optional articles,” she says. “A self-assessment is included in each course to demonstrate knowledge, followed by the creation of a plan to support on-the-job learning and application of the new knowledge.”  

Rich Gravelin, director of strategic alliances with Harvard Business Publishing, says Harvard ManageMentor enables organizations to make management training available to every employee. 

“A new manager might benefit from courses like ‘Delegating,’ ‘Team Management’ or ‘Writing Skills,’” says Gravelin. “A middle manager may find more value from offerings like ‘Leading People’ and ‘Strategic Thinking.’ Harvard ManageMentor is updated regularly, offering learners a mix of foundational training with the latest thinking in leadership.”

The benefit is available to CUES Unlimited and Unlimited+ members.cues icon

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

CUES Learning Portal