New Challenges Require New Leadership

Effective leadership development can boost operating results and staff morale.

August 20, 2012

When times are good, leaders can rely on past experiences to drive performance and produce positive results.

But when times are tough, human resource (HR) and training leaders must innovate, or risk underperformance. They must step up to challenges, and be adaptable and resilient so their credit unions can survive and thrive under prevailing pressures.

Today’s constantly changing business environment calls for a different type of leadership. We face a tough economic environment, an evolving marketplace, and fierce competition.

But remember: These factors are all out of a credit union’s control. Leaders must focus, instead, on controlling what’s “controllable” in preparing for the future. This includes identifying, developing, and retaining top talent to ensure optimum business performance for long-term success.

Key qualities to search for include:

Mental toughness. This is the ability to respond positively to multiple—sometimes conflicting—pressures, and to consistently perform at high levels.

► Capacity. When measuring leadership talent, it’s not only about performance—it’s about potential, too. Accurate assessment of leadership potential might be a better predictor of future success than simply performance history.

Although differentiating between performance and potential is challenging, it’s of great value and a common practice in sports. You hear stories of average performers becoming champions. Michael Jordan, for example, was dropped from his high-school team before becoming a basketball star.

Identifying future leaders internally is vital, as is developing them and retaining them. Organizations’ performance management programs must incorporate effective goal-setting and one-on-one coaching, plus regular performance evaluation and feedback to provide the maximum value and continuous support for future leaders.

Just as the best athletes need coaches, so do high performers in our credit unions. Regular coaching is a critical link between the knowledge and skills acquired in training and the actual application of that learning. Coaching gives leadership candidates time and opportunity to set goals based on performance feedback, and to review their progress.

If the right candidate isn’t available from an internal pool, external recruitment is the next option. But proceed carefully. During recruitment and selection, ensure that a true fit exists between the organization and the potential employee. And continually focus on identifying competencies that truly differentiate candidates.

Other leadership best practices:

Flexibility. Labor pool dynamics are constantly changing. For the best results, maximize and retain experienced individuals’ talents at the same time you attract younger people to plan for future leadership positions.

Objectivity. Closely align any leadership development program to organizational objectives and culture. Avoid simply promoting staff to leadership positions because it “feels right” or they’ve “put in their time.” This subjective approach risks placing the wrong candidate in a critical role. I’ve seen this happen too often, and it’s detrimental to both the individual and the organization. An objective approach is essential.

Assessment. Balance current demands with long-term talent strategies to ensure the right people are in place when leadership opportunities arise. Assess your credit union’s talent pool objectively to secure future succession, develop a pipeline, and make sure the credit union is led by the people most suited to essential leadership positions.

When leadership development is effective, it can lead to increased retention and better business performance. The message is clear: Organizations that take an objective and structured approach will be on course for future success.

Being a leader is challenging, especially during tough times. Leaders succeed or fail on their ability to inspire others’ performance, which is no small task. Leadership requires a set of skills and behaviors that must be identified and developed.

We have an opportunity to influence the careers and futures of our employees—and the success of our credit unions—by providing timely and effective employee development.

SUZANNE OLIVER is senior vice president of educational services and governmental affairs at Mountain America Credit Union, West Jordan, Utah, and vice chair of the CUNA HR/TD Council. Contact her at 801-325-6234. For more information about CUNA Councils, visit