Don’t Roll the Dice on Leadership

Embrace employees’ ambitions and provide a pathway for advancement.

May 1, 2013

Not everyone needs to be, or should be, a leader. And even among those who have the tools to be leaders, some simply aren’t a good match for your credit union’s culture.

About that culture: Mold it to your ideals before developing any grandiose leadership development programs because your culture is the strongest determinant for the traits your future leaders will adopt.

And don’t force upwardly mobile employees to keep their intentions secret. Foster their dreams, whether that means they move up the ladder internally or pursue opportunities elsewhere.

Three credit union executives shared those and other insights on leadership development.

Embrace the messiness of the process

Leadership development can fall through the cracks in work environments where thin resources must be invested almost entirely on day-to-day functions.

That’s short-sighted, says Matt Monge, who has been designing a leadership-oriented environment at $495 million asset Mazuma Credit Union, Kansas City, Mo.. He’s the credit union’s chief workplace culture officer.

“You don’t leave a business’s finance to chance, human resources to chance, compliance to chance— nor should you,” Monge says. “But for some reason, with leadership development we cross our fingers and figure that people will muddle through and everything will be fine.

“I don’t know why you’d do that instead of thinking, ‘We’ve got all these people here who have a natural inkling toward wanting to do something important, something bigger than them, and for some of them it’ll be leading. Let’s help them become that, whatever version of a leader that is.’ ”

Monge is developing a leadership training program for Mazuma, making sure to marry the curriculum to the credit union’s culture. The first step is assessing the existing culture and changing it if necessary.

“It’s an exercise in self-awareness on a group level,” he says. “It’s looking in the mirror, asking difficult questions, and trying to get very honest answers. Who are we? Why do we exist? What things are true of us now? What things do we want to be true of us?”

For best results, employ a multi-tiered program that starts with a foundation of beliefs and becomes more detailed as an employee progresses into management— the way scaffolding rises around a building as it’s being constructed, Monge says.

A “holistic” program covers change management, tactical leadership, organizational development and theory, coaching, human resources and development, communication, and leadership and diversity. Community learning, in which participants interact by questioning and advancing each other’s ideas, provides superior results, Monge says.

Embrace leadership development as an organic process, he advises, finding beauty even in the warts.

“It’s not this sterile, purely academic thing where people [view] a PowerPoint and then get a certificate and suddenly they’ve been developed as a leader,” Monge says. “It’s going to be messy, but that’s part of the beauty of it.”

NEXT: Ambition isn’t a dirty word

Ambition isn’t a dirty word

Early in his career, Rudy Pereira shared opinions one-on-one but froze up in meetings with executives.

“I felt then that my role was technology, and if the subject was not technology, it was not my time to voice an opinion,” says Pereira, president/CEO at $1.3 billion asset Royal Credit Union, Eau Claire, Wis. “I couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Likewise, Pereira believes many people keep a lid on their career ambitions, fearful of their superiors’ reaction. Conversely, Pereira attended the prestigious Center for Creative Leadership in 1999 and credits the two credit union CEOs he served under for preparing him well for his first CEO position.

“Why hold employees back? You’re [all] going to benefit from that development,” says Pereira, who notes an employee’s departure creates an opportunity to promote a talented successor. “When [people believe] you actually care about their development, they give more because they feel they’re being supported.”

Pereira aims to create a leadership-friendly environment at Royal, which he has led since January 2012. While charisma is certainly a valued commodity, Pereira says that being authentic, transparent, and positive are the most important personality traits.

“One thing I’ve learned in this position is that the organization is always looking at you. You can’t have a bad day,” Pereira says.

“You’ve got to be honest and truthful,” he says. “You’ve got to find out who you are, what’s your style, and be the best you can at that. Don’t try to be something you’re not.”

To that end, organizations must ensure their leaders represent their ideals. “You’ve got to be willing to let good people go if they’re not following the core values of your organization,” Pereira says.

What’s the best way to measure a credit union’s leadership development program? For Pereira, the proof is in the pudding.

“I know I’ve succeeded if, when I leave here, somebody from my team is promoted to my role,” he says.

Share knowledge

Once, Dave Gunderson was walking his Great Dane alongside a road, and a sports car pulled up. The driver put the top down on his convertible and issued a pop quiz: What are the two characteristics of Level 5 leaders in Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great”?

The answer—humility and resolve—are guiding principles for Gunderson, as is the concept that leaders should pay it forward.

Gunderson, CEO of the $687 million asset Credit Union of Southern California in Whittier, continues to benefit from interactions with his mentors. That group includes the driver of the sports car, Dale Quarto, who owns a management consulting firm.

“Mentorship is critical,” Gunderson says. “The best leaders are the best mentors.”

While time constraints and funding are a “conundrum” for many credit unions seeking to institute formal leadership development programs, Gunderson believes these programs can’t take a back seat. As such, Credit Union of Southern California incorporates leadership principles into its daily operation. The credit union also has developed an intensive, self-directed leadership program in which motivated employees meet with top credit union executives while following a rigorous curriculum. Both approaches offer payoff without a price tag.

At the manager level, the credit union stresses education and communication. Gunderson routinely assigns books on leadership topics (Collins’ writing resonates with him), oft en allocating up to an hour of meeting time to discuss the themes. Quarterly meetings focus on leadership, and the institution’s more than 30 managers must communicate the most pressing challenges they face.

Management intends to invite aspiring leaders to these meetings to witness the credit union’s philosophy and practices in action.

“It’s informative to see team members share: ‘Hey, I’m struggling in this area—what are you doing?’ ” Gunderson says. “That speaks to our culture. We try to have a good communication system and we rely on one another. It’s not just the books—those are helpful—but the fact that we can share what’s going well and what isn’t.”

The self-development program features leadership workshops, online training, and a lot of reading. To graduate, participants must meet with each manager of the credit union’s 12 major units, plus a branch manager; network at system meetings; and deliver a 15-minute presentation on leadership.

One of the program’s shining stars, Aaron Burnham, moved into a supervisory role in the call center while progressing through the curriculum.

“He’s grown as a leader but also as an individual,” Gunderson said.