Shorter tenures, tighter timelines, growing demands for digital access: Board members are accustomed to juggling competing priorities while standing on a moving platform.
Four board leaders share their advice for staying balanced while tackling new challenges. While their credit unions vary in size and location, they all face the challenges of attracting young consumers, staying committed to their mission, and achieving balance in a changing environment.
The pressures of the pandemic transformed the workforce, hastened technology adoption, and changed expectations that credit unions will be nimble and flexible, says Doug Mah, board secretary at $4.7 billion asset WSECU in Olympia, Wash., and that city’s former mayor. He believes those changes will help credit unions face a potential recession.
“Boards should adjust accordingly, recognizing we may not have the luxury of time when addressing issues,” Mah says. “The pandemic forced us to double our efforts to meet consumer expectations. We need to take advantage of the nimbleness we built into our organizations.”
Mah served on the Olympia City Council from 2001 to 2011, including a four-year stint as mayor. His career in public service began in 1989 and included professional and volunteer roles at a hospital, community college, and various levels of state and local government.
Mah’s favorite role: serving on the regional wastewater board of directors that created a nonprofit corporation aimed at reducing discharge into Puget Sound while providing vital services to area residents.
Mah joined the WSECU board in 2011, and in 2012 founded a management and public consulting firm. In both roles, he believes knowing where to focus is essential.
At WSECU, that means having the board remain “the steward of the brand” by focusing on governance and staying forward-facing. That includes changing how the credit union recruits and nominates board members to encourage diversity.
“The day of the 25-year board member is probably gone,” Mah says. “The average tenure will be closer to five years, maybe 10.”
He praises WSECU’s two board retreats each year for creating “generative conversation” where directors openly discuss possibilities and air concerns. While the board is aware of consumers’ digital banking demands, “mobile required us to think very differently” by revealing that younger consumers choose financial services for different reasons than older generations.
“Our own lived experience isn’t always consistent with the demographics we are seeking as new members, and our lived experiences aren’t necessarily shared by all of our members,” Mah says. “Don’t let your own experience get in the way of making a good decision.”
‘Everyone’s perspective might be different but they’re all valid because they all come from different places.’
Courtney Jones offers the perspective of a board member who’s under 40 and sometimes sits next to directors with more than 40 years of service at
$940 million asset Community 1st Credit Union in Ottumwa, Iowa.
“There’s definitely a benefit from getting new blood, new information, and new ideas,” she says. “But you have to find a good balance with passing on the knowledge from directors who have been there so long.”
Jones is an Oklahoma native who moved to Iowa after college when her husband took a job there. She put her health background to work at the local YMCA before shifting to a blood donation center, where she’s director of training and development.
Community involvement makes Jones feel at home amid her adopted hometown’s “small-town feeling.” She was seeking a new volunteer challenge when a branch manager reached out about board service. She joined the board in 2018.
Jones says the Community 1st board keeps its focus on strategy instead of operations. Balancing face-to-face services for older members with younger members’ digital demands is a challenge, as is maintaining cybersecurity and managing the rapid flow of post-pandemic change.
“What was once considered standard member behavior, or even standard market and interest rate developments, is no longer standard,” Jones says. “It’s a challenge to predict it all.”
Strategic planning keeps the board focused, she adds, while one-to-one conversations before and after meetings create connections across generations. Getting the youngest and the oldest directors to listen to each other can sometimes take conscious effort, but focusing on communication and remaining professional bridges the gap.
“Our general life experiences are vastly different when it comes to your financial institution and how to use it,” Jones says. “It’s important to remember that everyone’s perspective might be different, but they’re all valid because they all come from different places.”
Recruiting young board members while attracting young members is twice the challenge, but credit unions must tackle both goals or risk losing relevance.
“We’ve lost relevance to generations Z and Y at the same time we’re struggling to attract new, younger directors,” says Tim Harrington, president at TEAM Resources. “I think these are connected.”
Members of Generation Y, also known as millennials, were born between 1981 and 1996, and currently make up about 35% of the U.S. workforce, according to the Pew Research Center. Generation Z, born from 1997 through 2012, currently makes up 5% of the workforce, which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects to increase to 30% by 2030.
Conversations with credit unions sometimes reveal a disconnect between board members’ opinions and where their institutions need to go, he says, particularly about the need for digital services.
Young members seek quick and easy access to digital spending accounts, loans, and other products, Harrington says, adding they’re also attracted to organizations that tie their mission to a greater purpose, such as serving the underserved.
Credit unions that adopt this model will differentiate themselves, outperform competitors, inspire employees, appeal to young members, and attract new directors, he says, noting that purpose-driven credit unions often have several advisory directors in place, waiting for a board vacancy to arise.
Board members may need to “learn, unlearn, and relearn” to compete for young members while recruiting younger directors, he says.
That transformation can start by addressing these critical questions:
Does your board include one or two “digital age” directors?
Are your board members willing to change when and how they meet and what they discuss to recruit younger directors and attract young members?
What are your five-year trends for both the average age of members and the average age of new members?
What does data reveal about your success in loans and deposits for young members?
Examine loan and deposit balances by age groups, such as age 35 to 40.
While those age 29 to 55 represent prime borrowing years, Harrington says credit unions must attract members earlier to make loans later.