Crafting a Modern Succession Plan

line of wooden meeples with arrows pointing from one to the next by sticky note that reads succession planning
Andy Roquet Photo
Senior Executive Benefits Specialist
CUNA Mutual Group

7 minutes

5 market realities to consider for credit union leadership continuity

Have you noticed that even the most far-out science fiction almost always orbits a people story? Machines, robots and rockets draw us in, but humanity keeps us engaged. 

As art often imitates life, the same can be said for banking. Speed-of-light loan approvals and personified chatbots may attract new members. Credit union people, however, keep them around. 

Humans help each other rise above the emotional gravity of otherwise weighty decisions to reach for the possibilities of financial stability—perhaps even wealth.  

Indeed, people can be counted among any given credit union’s most valuable assets. It’s why recruiting, rewarding and retaining key leaders are so high on the list of strategic imperatives. Yet, it is getting harder to do those three things well. New market forces are influencing the way humans show up for and think about their work in the larger context of their lives. 

In this new reality, credit unions have more things to think about as they design their leadership continuity plans. Below are five workforce trends HR leaders and board directors may want to explore in their strategic conversations around succession. 

1. The Changing Skillset of the Credit Union CEO

The toughest part about the evolution of the credit union CEO is that the list of skills is not only changing; it’s growing. CEOs must have all the same knowledge that has served the movement for decades, plus more. 

Modern CEOs must now possess “digital leadership” skills. Beyond the technology acumen the term calls to mind are a range of newly in-demand soft skills. These are talents like motivating through rapid or unexpected change and mobilizing strategic empathy to build a culture of inclusion. 

Today’s organizations will often deploy upskilling or reskilling initiatives when they identify a skill gap within their workforce. Traditionally, upskilling and reskilling have been thought of as programs to benefit frontline employees. Think Amazon’s Career Choice program or AT&T’s Future Ready initiative. The great news is that the principles of upskilling and reskilling can apply to management as well. 

Take reverse mentoring, for example. The concept pairs senior- or management-level staff with entry-level colleagues. Jack Welch first deployed it in 1999, pairing General Electric executives with junior staff to learn about the internet. However, having rising leaders hang with the digital natives on their team is not only about more richly experiencing the relevance of technology and digital engagement. It’s also about exposing them to new ways of approaching work, from questioning established processes to fixing things that aren’t broken. 

2. The Growing Appreciation for Multicultural Leadership 

Beyond simply being the right thing to do, ensuring diversity within the C-suite is proving to be a smart business principle. As more publicly traded companies are pressured to release data on workplace diversity, trends are showing strong connections between multicultural leadership and upticks in a range of financial performance metrics, from cash flow to net profits. 

To attract, retain and incentivize diverse candidates, however, credit unions may need to view their benefits strategies through a multicultural lens. According to the 2022 What Matters Now report from TruStage and CUNA Mutual Group, events of the last few years have encouraged more companies to face disparities head on and find solutions to remedy them. 

Credit unions seeking to diversify their leadership may be able to find some of those solutions as they hammer out their succession plans. Questions to ponder may look something like this:

  • Are pre-retiree paychecks and retirement matches truly equitable when accounting for racial or other cultural wealth gaps? 
  • Are existing parental leave benefits inclusive of LGBTQ+ partnerships or single-parent households? 
  • Do pre-funding investments made to offset the cost of benefits reflect principles of diversity, equity and inclusion?

Credit union specific research, like data included in the 2022 What Matters Now report, can be a good starting point for HR teams looking to get a handle on their own multicultural retention strategies. The report found, for instance, a 50% spike in worries among Hispanic people about having enough money to retire; a more than 125% spike in worries among Black people about saving enough for their children’s college education; and a staggering 200% spike among white people in worries about having enough money to take care of a parent or loved one. 

Heading into a rumored recession, more credit unions are likely to strategize around the most predictable options possible for funding differentiated benefits packages.

3. The Rise of the On-Demand Executive 

Nothing can torpedo a succession plan quite like an unanticipated resignation. And unfortunately, the oft-referenced “Great Resignation” has not failed to reach the C-suite, nor the managerial levels feeding into it. 

Enter the on-demand executive. Meeting a range of human capital needs, on-demand executives can engage with credit unions in several ways. They can fill interim roles during a search for a permanent employee. They can also serve as advisors or coaches to keep the cooperative’s strategic plan on track when C-suite vacancies may otherwise derail such progress. 

Mentoring is yet a third way a credit union may consider engaging an on-demand executive. More of today’s up-and-coming leaders are eager to be guided by a trusted colleague toward the next step in their careers. Credit unions confronting unexpected changes to leadership continuity may be able to pivot more quickly if their succession plans include the option to call on a reliable mentor to counsel an unseasoned employee. 

4. Ongoing Economic Volatility

To minimize the risk of disruptive resignations, credit unions typically employ the help of competitive executive benefits packages with stick-around incentives, such as split dollar and 457(f) plans. To adequately fund these carrots, cooperatives often work with consultants like those at CUNA Mutual Group Executive Benefit Solutions to design a solid funding strategy. This is fairly straightforward when credit unions are deposit-rich; not so when they are lent out. 

Credit unions are no strangers to the ups and downs of the economy, nor of their own loans-to-asset ratios. Therefore, executive benefits funding strategies are generally established with some volatility in mind. However, typical funding strategies rarely account for wild swings and unprecedented market pressures (like those generated by COVID-19). That’s not to say it’s impossible to do so. 

Heading into a rumored recession, more credit unions are likely to strategize around the most predictable options possible for funding differentiated benefits packages. 

5. The Appeal of a Flatter Organizational Structure

Over the last decade, our executive benefits team has observed an interesting shift toward flatter organizational structures within the nation’s most progressive credit unions. Some of this may be explained by the vast expansion in the number of products, services and experiences members now expect from their credit unions. Other root causes include the need for faster decision-making, an emerging appetite for empowering front-line staff and the thirst for autonomy among younger generations of employees.  

Whatever the motivation, flatter org structures create new challenges for leadership continuity. Among them is the necessary change to traditional succession plans, which are based on vertical, instead of lateral, movement. The simple (yet not-so-simple) fact is that today’s credit union leaders are building retention strategies for employee segments thought to disapprove of hierarchies. 

Several best practices for sussing out and then motivating key leaders within flat organizations have emerged in recent years. They center on values like autonomy, recognition, equity and belonging. This includes things like allowing employees to develop their own job descriptions and craft their own titles, developing new channels for distributing kudos both internally and externally, providing pay transparency across divisions, and establishing employee resource groups. 

The Incorruptible Concept of People Helping People

There is little doubt the role of the human worker is about to undergo massive disruption. The fascination with technology that migrated from sci-fi films to corporate innovation labs has launched a revolution of neural networks, robotics and automation sure to displace people from traditional jobs. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time such a wave of change has hit the global workforce, and it’s likely not the last. 

However, there is also little doubt, at least in the mind of this long-time credit union pro, that people will continue to be the strongest force fueling the industry’s impact. Generations of credit union leaders to come will prove that “people helping people” is an incorruptible concept. We owe it to them to pivot our planning now, so they have the strongest chance of continuing the movement’s mission in the future.  cues icon 

Andy Roquet is a senior executive benefits specialist for CUESolutions provider CUNA Mutual Group Executive Benefit Solutions with more than three decades of service to CU leaders. He can be reached at 

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