Gerry Agnes had an epiphany of sorts while attending a conference presentation on board recruitment several years ago.
“Board positions are among the most strategic and important decisions a credit union can make,” says Agnes, president/CEO at $3.4 billion asset Elevations Credit Union in Boulder, Colo. “Given that we use recruiters for executives we hire, and the wide net it casts in terms of creating a professional and diverse executive team, wouldn’t it be appropriate to use executive recruiters in board recruitment?”
Elevations, which turns over one or two board members each year due to its 12-year maximum term limits, has used the executive recruitment firm of Heidrick & Struggles to identify its last three board members, Agnes says.
It’s part of the credit union’s intentional approach to board recruitment that takes into consideration member, generational, and community representation; strategic direction; and the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), he says.
“We work closely with a representative from the company,” Agnes says. “He’s developed a close working relationship with the board and our governance and nominating committee. That committee develops what they envision our next board member to be from a criteria standpoint, and they bring those criteria to the full board of directors for their approval and agreement.”
The criteria is a wish list that evolves from year to year, says Don Cheyne, Elevations’ board chair. “It depends on the individual who terms out and the competencies we’re losing as a result, our strategic direction, and the operating environment at that particular time,” he says. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion are important strategically for boards, and this practice helps us ensure the incorporation of DEI at the board level in a systematic and repeatable way. The criteria always changes; it shouldn’t be fixed.”
The process has changed the composition of the Elevations board, he says. “The quality of directors who come on the board is tremendous. We have people who truly can hit the ground running because they’ve got the right background and the right knowledge to do the job. Culture fit is also a big piece of how easily these people fit into our boardroom. That was somewhat unexpected for me.”
Elevations had term limits in place long before Agnes took the helm 15 years ago. “Our board has always done a good job of recruiting,” he says.
When Agnes arrived, the credit union had seven directors: four women and three men ranging in age from their 20s to 70s. “Today, we have nine diverse board members. Operating with a diverse board of directors has been intentional at Elevations Credit Union.”
The former U of C Federal Credit Union has historically drawn board members from the faculty and staff of the University of Colorado, as well as from the area’s federal labs. The latter lend further diversity to the board.
In 2016, a change in Colorado law allowed credit unions to compensate board members and authorized the replacement of the supervisory committee with an audit committee. Elevations adopted both practices immediately.
Doing so has “really elevated our board practices,” Agnes says. “For example, creating an audit committee solely as a subset of the board to replace the supervisory committee, composed solely of non-board members, was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. Directors are much better informed about the risks and internal controls of the credit union than they were operating under the supervisory committee model. They go much more in depth in their reports to the board.”
Such changes have also improved the onboarding process, says Cheyne. “When I came on the board, it took me probably two years to get comfortable with the credit union movement, our organization, and our financials. Now, we’re getting people who are much more prepared. That on-ramp has shortened up to a couple of months instead of a year or two.”
He believes the new recruitment strategy has improved the organic process of governance within the board.
“The topics and the depth of our discussions have been positively influenced by how we’ve evolved,” Cheyne says. “It’s a process that encourages a lot of discourse. Having people who join the board ready to be a part of that discourse is huge.”
He says the recruiting process has changed the overall culture of the Elevations board. “We’re much more strategic now. All of our discussions are driven by the strategic process.”
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