Credit Union Central of Manitoba is the trade association and a service provider for Manitoba's 41 credit unions. Under Manitoba's Credit Unions and Caisses Populaires Act, CUCM's role is to manage liquidity reserves, monitor credit-granting procedures and provide financial, payments and related business consulting and trade services. In essence, it is the credit unions' bank.
"I think it is crucial within an organization that there be clarity of purpose," says CUCM chief executive officer Garth Manness. "It sounds like a buzz phrase, but it's not. Clarity about why an organization exists and where it is going is key to ensuring employees feel good about what they do and it also helps them to understand how their role contributes to your success."
CUCM, which employs 100 staff in its downtown Winnipeg office, recently participated in discussions with counterparts in Alberta and Saskatchewan about whether to form one large central service provider and trade association for credit unions on the Prairies. While the plan is not proceeding, Manness says that CUCM was guided through the process with the support of its board, its employees and its 41 credit union members, all of whom place trust in the organization.
"I'm convinced that the best way to deal with issues like this which can create great uncertainty is to be upfront with your people," Manness says. "By telling them where things are at, why you're looking at a change and how it connects to your vision and purpose; it creates understanding."
Q: How does your people philosophy help to communicate the values of your organization?
A: I would identify our people philosophy in two parts. One, we need to continually ensure that our people understand that we exist for the purpose of serving Manitoba's credit unions. Two, we must define our expectations for employee behaviour, ensuring we are trustworthy providers of service to credit unions. That goes hand-in-hand with communicating and upholding our values: showing respect for the individual and operating with integrity and excellence. We want to be an organization that's accountable to our members, but in order to do that, our leadership team must also be accountable to our staff. When we don't live up to those values, we have to be fully prepared to acknowledge and correct it so that our people see that our values are not just words on the wall, they can trust that it's the standard we all strive to achieve and are accountable to.
One of the advantages of being a relatively small organization is that our employees have the opportunity to dialogue with the leadership team and provide their input on things that we could be doing better. It's by no means a perfect system, but we work hard to at least find avenues to allow for feedback and in turn ensure our staff understands where we're going. I'm a firm believer that if your staff trusts that you'll listen to them, you will certainly learn a lot about your organization. If you can create that sense of safety, then you've reached an important milestone in your culture.
Q: How have the discussions about Prairie Central affected your operations and your future?
A: Let me first explain what precipitated these discussions. In 1999, Manitoba had 67 credit unions with about $5 billion in assets. Today, there are 41 credit unions worth $17 billion. Although assets are growing, the number of credit unions is declining and fewer credit unions means Central has fewer members to buy the services we offer.
The second challenge is the growing differential in the size of our members, with the smallest credit union having $12 million in assets and the largest having over $3 billion in assets. That significant gap means our customers have different needs and it's becoming more difficult for an independent central like us to meet them. So we've had conversations with our Prairie partners about whether or not we should come together and create one large central as opposed to a provincial one. As it turns out, we are not going to proceed as we thought, but managing effectively through this uncertainty is as important to us as deciding whether to merge.
Q: How are you addressing the possibility of change when things are still up in the air?
A: When we started talking to the Prairie centrals in a formal way, we immediately engaged a change management consultant to work with our people. We had our management group go through the program and then provided it to employees. It showed that we recognized that people would have concerns about facing the unknown and that they might react differently to uncertainty. We assured staff that we would communicate with them continually throughout the process. Although the merger hasn't turned out as originally planned, the issues that initially drove us to have those conversations have not gone away. We still need to figure out how to address them and we're confident we'll find solutions. In the meantime, we are still in a changing environment and our people understand that.
Q: Are there any people programs you have in place that you wish were working better?
A: A few years back, we set up a leadership development group that included individuals our senior leadership group identified as being on track to becoming future successors. We also invited people who were interested in investing their own time to improve their personal leadership skills. We kicked the group off, but it has not quite gone where we wanted it to go in part, because we left it to be too much of a self-run process. In retrospect, our senior people, including myself, need to provide more oversight and mentorship to that group in order to make it effective. As an extension of this, we also identified eight competencies of an effective business person to the leadership group. However, we didn't necessarily align the competencies to our organizational values and as a result, we didn't define enough behavioural or "soft leadership" competencies. So now we are in the process of providing a better structured development process with competencies more closely aligned with our values. We'll start by re-clarifying the leadership requirements at our most senior level, before taking the program to our succession group and then inviting other staff to take part.
Q: As you develop your leadership team, what qualities do you seek in future leaders?
A: We believe the leaders who will eventually run this organization must have a very clear line of sight in terms of meeting the needs of our credit union members. Therefore, they need to be very good listeners and have the ability to understand those needs and respond to them. There's a phrase in one of the books I'm reading, "People are hired for skill and they're fired for attitude." And to me, making sure you can figure out attitude factors before bringing new people into the organization or putting them into leadership positions is so important. That is a constant challenge -- making sure we know that a person who moves into a leadership position is going to be able to model our corporate values. It's that modelling by the leaders that creates the trust within the employee base as well as the trust in the customer base. We want to know that what we see is what we get; there is a transparency that ensures we know what to expect with that person. Lastly, I would say they need to be big picture thinkers. They need to have a broad, strategic view of where we are going, what the operating environment will look like and have the desire to help our people be successful in that future.
Q: Which leadership books have been particularly inspirational to you?
A: Right now, I am reading Master Leaders by George Barna, which features interviews with 30 well-respected leaders in business, sports, entertainment, government and religion. Barna obviously conducted the interviews independently, but he weaves the stories as if he's assembled all these powerful people at a leadership seminar. I've read Jim Collins' books -- Built to Last, Good to Great and How the Mighty Fall -- and learned a lot. I heard Collins speak at the world credit union conference last summer and he did a tremendous job of taking the five reasons why companies fail and juxtaposing them with the five reasons that companies become great as opposed to good. I've also learned from Stephen Covey's books and particularly appreciated the concepts presented in Principle Centered Leadership. Like Covey, I believe organizations that can identify the right values, get buy-in from their people, then act these values out in their dealings with each other and with customers will develop a principle-centred organization.
-- With reporting by Barbara Chabai
John McFerran, PhD, F.CHRP, is managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search. He can be contacted at email@example.com.