Building a Better Bench Helps CUs Sail Forward

red paper boat leads a team of yellow boats leading a bigger team of green boats across the page
Contributing Writer

13 minutes

The workforce has changed, but the need for an effective management team remains the same.

Keeping pace with rapid changes in the economy and financial services industry is a challenge for today’s credit unions. CUs need to be agile in responding to the competition. They must stay current with technology, elevate their service levels to satisfy members and be diligent about compliance issues. This requires a strong, talented workforce—but the workforce itself has big questions that CUs can’t ignore: where employees will work, how they will work, how they will interact with peers and leaders, and how they can develop skills to match the changing nature of their jobs.

“Workforce challenges are constantly evolving,” says Stacey Collins, SPHR, CCXP, chief experience officer of $437 million Dutch Point Credit Union, based in Wethersfield, Connecticut. “It’s a fluid situation. We need to continuously respond to whatever the next workplace challenge may be.”

The workforce underwent a major transition at the onset of the pandemic, with remote and hybrid models becoming firmly entrenched and transforming organizational dynamics. “For a long time, workforce management—how we attract talent, develop talent and manage the employer/employee relationship—was very traditional,” says Collins, an experienced credit union leader whose diverse career in operations, business strategy and talent development spans more than 20 years. “Then COVID happened, and it shook everything up. It gave people the opportunity to experience different ways of working. It was a great experiment that we could have never pulled off without a pandemic.”

In the post-pandemic world, workforce dynamics are shifting again. “Now, the challenge is trying to determine, ‘What does normal look like?’” Collins says. “It’s not uncommon for the pendulum to swing from one extreme to the other as people try to find a new center for their organization.”

Doing More With Less

It’s important to understand the context in which workforce challenges are occurring. Jesse Meschuk, a Los Angeles-based HR expert and human capital advisor with 20-plus years of experience, cites two major factors affecting credit union staffing models: 1) the rise in competition from big banks, fintechs, online lenders and others, and 2) recent feedback from consumers, which suggests that credit unions are falling short in meeting rising expectations for digital technology and convenience.

“Both of these factors have created a push for CUs to do more with less,” Meschuk says. “Employees are experiencing increased demands and feeling pressure to be much more efficient with their time, but that hasn’t necessarily led to increased staffing levels.”

Staffing shortages make employees feel overworked and underappreciated, leading to burnout, poor job performance and even higher turnover rates. To avoid these consequences, Meschuk advises credit unions to ensure they have adequate staffing levels to meet the requirements of the organization.

“I also recommend investigating how you can help employees do their work more efficiently with technology,” he says. “What kind of automated systems would make their jobs easier? How can they efficiently access information to make decisions more quickly? 

“You can also help employees become more efficient by stripping out unnecessary demands on their time, like excessive meetings, reporting or bureaucracy that are getting in the way of what they need to do.”

Meschuk notes that many jobs at credit unions are getting harder and more complex, citing regulatory burdens and the use of data analytics as two areas that need greater attention and expertise. “A lot of credit unions need to augment their leadership team by adding capabilities that they might not have right now—whether it’s adding people on the compliance and legal side or investing in more technology-related and data science-related leadership.”

However, Meschuk is quick to point out that staffing additions are needed not just in tech and data science leadership, but across the board. “Credit unions need broad capabilities at all levels of the organization.”

Stacey Collins, SPHR, CCXP
Chief Experience Officer
Dutch Point Credit Union
It’s a game of Tetris in my head all day long. I’m trying to figure out how I can best coordinate and connect the right people to get the work done.

Managing Change

One of today’s greatest workforce challenges is the need to become more proficient at managing change. A traditional change model is the top-down approach. “Top-down change leads to predictability in the change process, which can reduce resistance because the employees understand the expected changes,” says Deedee Myers, Ph.D., MSC, PCC, CHIC, founder/CEO of CUESolutions provider DDJ Myers, an ALM First Company, Phoenix.

However, the very predictability of this model is also a disadvantage—it lacks flexibility, minimizes strategic and critical thinking, and reduces the opportunity to accommodate unique challenges faced in the change effort, says Myers. 

“Change management is best assessed and executed from an organizational, team and individual perspective versus just one layer,” she notes. “This perspective often means starting at the member-facing level in the organization, assessing the needs to aspire to the highest level of service, and identifying and committing resources, including training and development, which are required to fulfill that aspiration. The mid- and executive-level structure is determined once decision-makers align on the front-facing team members’ needs.”

Consistency in communication is a success factor in creating positive change in today’s workforce, Myers adds. “Before any significant change, the CEO and leadership team [would] do well in consulting with the communication strategist on the messaging and timing for internal and external announcements and the pace and cadence to follow within the organization.”

Myers’ colleague, Darlene Dumont, Ph.D., LSSBB, stresses the importance of guarding against ineffective change management. “Understanding a culture’s change readiness is paramount in the approach and pace leaders need to take in implementing changes,” says Dumont, director of organizational development services at DDJ Myers. “Have the infrastructure in place to keep the pulse on the organization, establish a psychologically safe environment with trust and transparency, and work with HR and marketing to create a strategic cascading communication and training plan—before, during and after the change.”

Credit union leaders need to become more adept at change management, Meschuk agrees, especially in the case of major changes such as a digital transformation or the aftermath of a merger.  “A proper change management process requires you to thoroughly think through the changes and educate your workforce on what those changes are—why you’re doing them, when they’re coming out, and what the benefits are for them and the membership,” he says. With good communication, “your employees will buy into the changes. They’ll be excited to tell your members, ‘Hey, we made all these enhancements, and they’re going to be great.’”

The Importance of Developing Skills

Meschuk additionally stresses the importance of upskilling employees to keep pace with change. “This requires [forethought] about bringing your employees along as your business changes. If you don’t do that, they’ll end up being left behind,” he says. “It also puts a premium on making sure that, at the leadership level, you have the right succession-planning process in place. As your organization grows or reinvents itself, you have to have the right leadership bench to move things forward.”

As organizations develop and change, it’s important they have employees who have—or can develop—the skills to take on new roles. “More and more within the learning and development industry, people are talking about creating skills-based organizations,” says Lesley Sears, VP/consulting services for CUES. “And one of the foundational elements of this is shifting from a job description-based approach to a skills-based approach.”

The skills-based approach is more conducive to career pathing, which helps identify a way for employees to progress in the organization by assessing their current skills and helping them develop additional skills that will take them to the next level. “In that way, development becomes much more personalized to the individual employee,” Sears explains.

Myers advises credit unions to evaluate their organizational competency, capacity, commitment and efficacy to ensure that existing employees have the right skills and mindset to fulfill the needed change. 

“Credit unions are at a stage in their life cycle to expect and deserve higher-order thinking in assessing, analyzing, creating and executing sustainable organizational change,” she says. “It does, however, take resources that may require a higher investment of time, energy and budget than what the organization historically has practiced.”

Learning and development should be prioritized at all levels to ensure that skill sets are progressing. Unfortunately, Sears notes, midlevel managers often get overlooked in these learning opportunities.

“Management training is more critical now than ever,” she says. “The pandemic put organizations through a lot of changes, and what I see a lot of now is management—specifically at the middle management level—‘struggling,’ I think, is a fair word. They’re trying to identify the best way to manage a post-pandemic workforce. Now, more than ever, managers need a helping hand from leadership, and from learning and development, to understand how to best engage with this new workforce.”

Among the most important topics for managers to learn about are good communication skills. “That’s the bottom line of good management—good communication,” Sears says. “Managers need to connect with their employees, understanding their needs, their desires, what they’re looking to achieve, and then providing them with the tools, the training and the resources to get them there.”

Myers also stresses the importance of putting more focus on middle management. “Midlevel managers are in professional and personal development crises,” she says. Many managers are desperately seeking mentoring and development opportunities for critical and strategic thinking skills—but balancing professional development time against daily priorities is a challenge. Furthermore, “resources to develop people are constrained and underqualified.”

A good strategy, according to Myers, is to involve supervisors of front-line staff and midlevel managers in some part of the strategic planning dialogue. She notes that it can be an exciting learning opportunity. “Hearing their member-facing or back-office support perspective is valuable to developing strategic initiatives to fulfill the organization’s vision,” she says. “I hear from these front-facing midlevel professionals that being asked for their insight and perspective goes a long way toward them being seen and feeling valued. They see this as a vital retention tool.”

Deedee Myers, Ph.D.
DDJ Myers, an ALM First Company
Midlevel managers are in professional and personal development crises.

The Dispersed Workforce

Another major challenge of workforce management is the dispersed nature of where people work. As an example of the pendulum swing that Collins mentioned earlier, an increasing number of employers are issuing post-pandemic mandates requiring workers to return to the office. IBM is one of the latest mega-sized companies to tell its managers, as a recent Bloomberg headline puts it, to “move near an office or leave the company”.

“Many employees are having a hard time with these mandates because through COVID, they adjusted their schedules or perhaps they even moved to lower-cost locations, and now they have to come into the office,” Meschuk says. “Either they have to move back or find another job locally where the opportunities aren’t as good.”

Unfortunately, return-to-the-office mandates may be putting employers on the opposite side of a workplace benefit that their employees don’t want to give up. “I can understand why there has been a swing from ‘Work wherever you want’ to ‘Now we want people in the office,’” says Collins. “There is so much change in the workforce that I believe these executives are trying to nail down at least one piece they can control, especially if it helps them better measure productivity.”

However, Collins doesn’t see a need for credit unions to jump on the “return-to-the-office” bandwagon, especially if hybrid/remote work arrangements have been effective for their organizations. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all strategy,” she says. “The key is to determine what works best for your organization. I feel fortunate in our industry that the stakeholders we are serving are our members and our fellow employees.”

Meschuk observes that retaining remote/hybrid options is a low-cost way for organizations to differentiate themselves as employers. “Credit unions may not be able to offer the same salary levels or bonuses as fintechs and other employers that are leveraging equity. But what they can do is offer a more flexible work environment, and that’s worth something to many employees.”

Collins concedes that having people in different places creates challenges in communication. “I think that’s where some of us struggle because we have to be more planful, thoughtful and intentional about what we’re doing. When you’re looking at a distributed workforce, an important consideration is, ‘How do we ensure that people stay connected and feel like they belong?’”

Fortunately, technology has helped solve—or at least mitigate—this issue, allowing employees to easily connect with one another via emails, text messages, intranet communications and virtual meetings. “We seem to be able to find each other,” Collins says. “The key is to be present and visible. As leaders, we should be modeling that.”

Connecting with one another also can be accomplished more effectively by breaking down silos with an emphasis on team cross-organizational collaboration. At Dutch Point CU, putting people together to address organizational priorities is a one of Collins’ top priorities.

“I’m a system thinker,” she says. “I tell people it’s a game of Tetris in my head all day long. I’m trying to figure out how I can best coordinate and connect the right people to get the work done. And how am I as a leader translating our vision and tying it to our goals and objectives? As you’re putting together your people strategy, it’s important to determine how you can leverage the abundance of talent that’s available in the marketplace to accomplish those things aligned with your purpose.”

Employee Well-being

The pandemic called into focus another important workforce challenge—the need to address employee wellness. “COVID kicked off a new perspective on workforce wellbeing with a focus on employee security and psychology safety,” Sears says. “Because COVID ushered in a new style of working, employers had to become intentional on engagement.”

Though it’s been four years since the pandemic struck, Sears urges employers to ask themselves: “Are we still being intentional with our engagement?” She explains, “From a people-practices perspective, it’s important they continue to do those things that promote employee wellbeing.”

Collins also stresses the importance of helping employees with wellness issues. “Credit unions are very good at thinking about the financial wellness of our members, but we also need to spend time on the financial wellness of our employees,” she says. “We know how finances have an impact on individuals’ personal wellbeing. So, what can we do for our employees to help alleviate their financial concerns so that they’re not distracted and worried by such things? What would that mean for their productivity? Those are the types of day-to-day challenges that I feel we as employers can neutralize so that employees can feel safe and more confident while at work.”  

hand reaches out to place blue wooden Tetris puzzle piece into colorful stack of pieces

Addressing Common Workforce Challenges

Understanding workforce challenges is the first step to overcoming them. Darlene Dumont, Ph.D., LSSBB, director of organizational development services for CUESolutions provider DDJ Myers, an ALM Company, Phoenix, identifies several common challenges and offers solutions for how to counter them: 

  • Employee burnout, caused by too many changes at too fast a pace: Put a priority on change readiness and managing change effectively. Equip your staff with the resources and development skills to be successful.
  • Misalignment of people skills and roles/responsibilities: Since processes, roles and responsibilities change over time, update them regularly to align with the organizational design and members’ needs. Do a strategic workforce analysis annually and in conjunction with significant changes such as new products/services, IT systems and M&A.
  • Lack of robust training and development plans: Create a robust plan that aligns with members’ needs. Develop a competency model with a road map for onboarding, developing to the next level and backup/succession planning.
  • Broken processes: Don’t keep using ineffective, decades-old processes simply because “that’s the way we have always done it.” Root out and eliminate process waste.
  • Outdated rewards and recognition systems: Update systems to align with the skills and behaviors you want to promote. Whom you promote/reward (or don’t) sends the message of what the rest of the organization should do.
  • High turnover: Develop effective ways to retain critical people—both monetary (compensation, incentives, supplemental executive retirement plans, etc.) and nonmonetary (development, promotion, challenge, direct/indirect recognition). cues icon

Based in Missouri, Diane Franklin is a longtime contributor to CU Management magazine.

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