Doug Mah, WSECU board secretary

A board balancing act

Effective leadership requires board members to balance competing priorities and new challenges.

February 3, 2023

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.

Build in ‘nimbleness’

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.”

Countney Jones

‘Everyone’s perspective might be different but they’re all valid because they all come from different places.’

Courtney Jones

Bring in new blood

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.”

Balance for all ages

Phyllis Ford is committed to XCEL Credit Union being the primary financial institution for its members “by providing the highest quality affordable products and services delivered with honesty and integrity in a convenient and secure manner for generations to come.”

Achieving that goal is challenging when members age 60 and older still cherish branch visits and personal chats with staff about their families, while younger generations want technology and convenience with little personal interaction, says Ford, board chair at the $204 million asset credit union in Bloomfield, N.J.

Products that appeal to young members include digital wallets, remote deposit capture, mobile banking, smart cards, and online bill pay.

“Every board conversation about growth centers on the challenge of attracting generations Y and Z,” she says. “We believe the secret is recognizing how the target generations like to do business.”

Ford says other challenges facing credit union boards include:

  • Attracting volunteers.
  • Remaining profitable in a tough environment.
  • Competing with other financial institutions.
  • Coping with increasing regulations.
  • Finding cost-effective ways to remain innovative.
  • Gaining consumer recognition for delivering value.

Strategic planning sessions are crucial to understanding XCEL’s current position as well as its strategy for the future.

“If done correctly and honestly, it can be a painful process,” Ford says. “The resulting strategic plan is a living instrument.”

Being effective as chair requires interacting with volunteers and staff at XCEL and elsewhere. Ford says taking advantage of opportunities to learn is crucial.

“Most importantly, directors must be open to new ideas,” she says. “They must remember past mistakes and not be limited by those experiences.”

Stay in touch

No matter how many digital products you have, Pat Tollefson believes members must know they can still get the human touch when they want it.

Tollefson was appointed to the board at $808 million asset Corporate America Family Credit Union in Elgin, Ill., in 2022.

Previously, she served on the board at $194 million asset Area Federal Credit Union in Aberdeen, S.D., for more than 25 years, including 15 years as board chair.

Tollefson recommends tapping every educational resource while networking with other credit union leaders. For her, that included past participation in the National Association of Credit Union Chairs and CUNA’s Volunteer Leadership Committee.

Staying in touch with the young consumers who represent the future of credit unions is critical. Tollefson enjoys conference presentations that offer insight into generational differences.

In one session, Generation X participants explained they were “latchkey kids” accustomed to taking responsibility from a young age when they came home to an empty house and tackled chores without supervision. Generation Y participants said they had 

“helicopter parents” who hovered over their activities, which affected their decision-making skills.

“That kind of information has always intrigued me,” she says.

Tollefson works as an independent insurance agent specializing in commercial accounts. She also volunteers at community organizations, including an economic development board and the Boys & Girls Club.

Practicing mindfulness and gratitude allows her to balance those responsibilities, Tollefson says.

She grew up on a family farm where she learned the benefits of the cooperative movement at a young age. Today, she says credit unions have to work harder to share that message in a way that resonates with young, digital-savvy consumers.

“You have to show them you are community and environmentally minded,” Tollefson says. “You have to tell a story and get buy-in from them. I don’t care if you offer a debit card that gives them points back or plants a tree on their behalf, you have to give them a message they can relate to.

They want more because they’re making decisions for themselves and for those who don’t have a voice.”