For some tasks, the best way to learn is by doing.
That’s especially true for credit union board members, says Nick Etscheid, who was an associate director at $690 million asset Verity Credit Union in Seattle before he was elected to the board in 2020.
The experience prepared him for the responsibilities he’d have as a full board member, as well as how to work effectively with the group. “You can find your voice and learn at the same time,” Etscheid says.
Credit unions are developing associate programs, appointing mentors, and updating training to prepare new board members to contribute as soon as possible after their election. The result is a high-performing board that quickly captures the contributions of new directors without losing speed.
An associate director program can prepare new directors before they’re appointed or elected to the board.
America’s First Federal Credit Union in Birmingham, Ala., started its associate program in 2014 to recruit volunteers who could come to their first board meeting “fully equipped” to assume their duties as directors, says Alan Stabler, executive vice president and chief administrative officer at the $2 billion asset credit union.
“Before we had the associate program, you could look at new board members in meetings and tell they were struggling to keep up,” Stabler says. “It was common during meetings to have new directors using a smartphone to Google acronyms.”
The credit union needs to recruit new board members continually because it uses term limits to gather fresh perspectives.
America’s First Federal typically draws associates from the credit union’s membership. Preferred candidates hold valued roles at community organizations or “benefit partner” businesses that allow the credit union to offer on-site enrollment and financial training.
It appoints up to five associate directors to one-year terms that can be renewed at the annual meeting until a board opening occurs.
Associate members attend board meetings in a nonvoting role, participate in annual planning retreats, attend training, and may serve on committees or perform special assignments. They also can contact executives with questions and are encouraged to attend conferences.
“For all intents and purposes, they are board members in training and are at almost every event that regular board members attend,” Stabler says. “They know our routines and they know us. That’s been the beauty of this program.”
To date, several associates have been elected to the seven-member board while only two associate directors left the program due to scheduling conflicts. Three of the four directors who joined the board in 2020 participated in the associate program, and the fourth received training through service on the supervisory committee.
Applicants for associate director positions typically outnumber openings two to one at Verity. Justin Martin, executive vice president and chief operating officer, says Verity’s nine-member board consists entirely of directors who started as associates.
Martin credits the program with creating a high-performing board.
“They hit the ground running,” Martin says. “They’ve learned how to work with each other and how to have collaborative but pointed conversations. This heightened our board’s ability to guide our strategic direction.”
The associate program started in 2010, driven by older directors who wanted to ensure the “next” board would understand Verity’s legacy of community service while welcoming new ideas. They also wanted to recruit young professionals who could relate to young members.
Verity’s board now includes directors in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, but none older than 60.
“These are all working professionals with demanding jobs,” Martin says. “They’re dedicating a significant amount of time and energy because they believe in this credit union.”
Martin notes it’s important to be “purposeful” in onboarding associates to make them feel included. When the program started, executives discovered that details like figuring out where associates sit during board meetings can make a big difference in making them feel comfortable and accepted.
Over time, a few associates have left due to other commitments, but most continue to serve until a board position opens. Openings arise more frequently now, Martin says, because experienced board members feel comfortable handing off their seats to trained associates.
When there are more associates than board seats, those who are not elected can remain in the associate program. Verity also trains board members through orientation, formal mentoring, training, and committee work. As a result, Martin says, Verity no longer worries about letting good director candidates get away.
Two directors who joined credit union boards through associate programs agree that serving an apprenticeship made them more effective when they were elected.
“This takes a lot of time, but it gives an outsized return in your growth and your strategic thinking, which a lot of young professionals don’t get to express in their daily work,” says Nick Etscheid, who served on two credit union committees as a board associate in 2019 before he was elected to the board of $690 million asset Verity Credit Union in 2020.
Access to the Seattle-based credit union’s executives was critical. It allowed Etscheid, a global data center expansion manager for Amazon Web Services, to ask questions that gave him insights into the role of a director.
Sara Robicheaux, Ph.D., sought an associate board position at $2 billion asset America’s First Federal Credit Union in Birmingham, Ala., because it aligned with her expertise as professor of finance and dean of business programs at Birmingham-Southern College. While she has served on nonprofit boards, she needed to learn credit unions’ unique structure.
“There is a big learning curve for board members in grasping the credit union aim to serve their members rather than seeking a profit,” Robicheaux says.
Attending the annual board retreat helped her understand the credit union’s mission and strategic goals, as well as credit union regulations and industry trends.
“By first serving as an associate, you can find out what the commitment is before serving as an official board member,” Robicheaux says. “Most important, being an associate gave me a seat at the board table where I could review the monthly board reports, participate in meetings, and ask questions before having to vote on strategic issues.”
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