In May 2021, the curtain rose on a member experience conference unlike any Mountain America Credit Union in Sandy, Utah, had held before.
During the conference—an annual, organization-wide event that brings all member-facing employees together to connect with each other and the credit union’s mission—hundreds of employees across six states heard a common message: Growth and development are not optional for employees or leaders.
Employee development is a low priority for many companies, speakers said, and it may be easier to bring in needed talent than to train in-house. But a newly competitive labor market and a rapidly changing industry have altered these calculations.
Hiring alone can’t fill gaps as the skills needed in the modern workforce change so quickly that qualified candidates often are scarce.
Finding the right mix of technical acumen and leadership “soft” skills—creativity, empathy, and collaboration—is rare, and those who have this secret sauce can demand a premium.
Employees are aware of this. With the lack of career development a top driver of turnover, employees are showing their willingness to vote with their feet to find organizations offering competitive development opportunities.
This is particularly true for young leaders. However, according to leadership development expert Dr. Jack Zenger, the average age of a leader's first formal development training is 46 (up from 42 in 1990), while the average age someone is first promoted into a leadership role is 30.
That is a long time without formal leadership training. And often when organizations say they do leadership training, the execution falls short of expectations.
Mountain America is flipping the script on these statistics. All leaders are slated to receive formal leadership training, focusing first on those closest to our members.
By the end of 2021, 85% of the credit union’s member service leaders and 70% of corporate leaders will have attended leadership coaching.
With most of our member-facing teams in their early 20s, developing our young professionals is paramount to the success of Mountain America and its members.
“The most essential attribute of a Mountain America leader is that they are passionate about people development,” says Nathan Anderson, executive vice president and chief operating officer at the $13 billion asset credit union. “Helping others grow and develop is where we make a difference as leaders.”
By building our collective leadership muscles, we can effectively scale development to all employees.
Through solid and skilled leaders comes coaching, development plans, and experiential opportunities. This enables us to grow leadership skills today while identifying the leaders of tomorrow.
"My role as a leader is simple," says Dave Barton, service center manager in Rexburg, Idaho. "I develop my people and remove any interference getting in the way of them hitting their potential.”
While cultivating leaders is the credit union’s development focus for 2021, helping all individual contributors find and reach their potential is a top priority.
Mountain America considers its most significant differentiator to be its people, which holds true for development opportunities. Many employees have found mentors among leadership and peers alike.
During a meeting, executives told Barton the best way to get ahead was by getting a mentor. “I made a beeline for my boss’s boss, and straight-up asked him to be my mentor. He didn't hesitate to say yes, and over the next six months he gave me his full attention.
“I soaked the information up like a sponge, and it helped me learn skills that differentiated me from my peers,” he continues. “Soon I was given a broadening assignment that turned into a manager role."
Broadening assignments and project-based learning opportunities are other ways Mountain America develops employees.
“As a leader, my job is to understand where jobs are going so I can keep my people relevant,” says Liz Stucki, vice president of internal communications. “I am constantly thinking about how I can expand my team's skill portfolio.”
Stucki is a firm believer in learning on the job by connecting employees to opportunities that leverage lateral skills. She does this by breaking each project down into their basic elements and finding employees with the drive to grow their skills.
"On-the-job learning requires you to relearn skills constantly and find new ways to use your current skills," she says. "When you look at a project as a development opportunity, the mindset changes completely."
Eli Shepherd, senior knowledge management specialist, is expanding her abilities by managing the redesign of Mountain America’s internal knowledge management tools.
"We’ve needed project management skills on our team for a long time, but I never thought I could do it," Shepherd says. "I had read about project management in the past, but what helped me learn was doing it in real life. I thought I was just going to learn about project management, but I have grown my skills in 20 or more areas through this work."
She credits this project with a dramatic increase in job satisfaction and engagement. “Adding this work helped me re-engage with my job, and it has opened many doors for me in my network. I see so many more opportunities now.”
Through leadership coaching, mentorship opportunities, and ample room to grow skills through real-world projects, young professionals have an array of development options.
“As you focus on your development,” Anderson says, “you will be able to serve members better, enjoy your job more, and be a more valuable resource.”
SAMANTHA EASTER is employee experience program manager for Mountain America Credit Union in Sandy, Utah.