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Four Pieces Your Board Development Puzzle May Be Missing (a la Missoula FCU)

guest post by Kevin Smith, CUNA

What are the crucial pieces of a well-developed board? If you said ratios, financials, regulations, governance or CEO oversight, you’re not wrong – but that’s only half of the puzzle. The other half contains the pieces that allow a group of potential strangers to pool their strengths and work as a team to advance their credit union’s goals.

Illustrating what a complete puzzle looks like, the board of directors for Missoula Federal Credit Union in Missoula, MT has maintained an effective culture for many years by embracing cohesive communication both in and out of the board room. Their chair, Carl Rummel, upholds that culture with an insightful approach to team-building that encourages candor, creativity and even an element of disagreement among his fellow board members.

“A board is often like a family and has the same dysfunctions that a family has,” explained Rummel. “We have a saying: ‘Love looks like a fight,’ meaning we need to have open, honest discussions with each other in order to reach a point where we can speak with one voice and act without hidden agendas.”

So what are the pieces that complete Missoula’s effective board puzzle?

1. Trust

A board’s potential starts with trust between its members. No one is going to speak their mind or take responsibility for a challenging task if they don’t feel supported by their peers. Would your directors stick their necks out for the team?

The Missoula FCU board builds trust under the philosophy “team fun leads to teamwork.” In order to get more face time with one another and develop consistency in their communication, they participate in board-specific social events and quarterly fireside chats. By seeing their team more than once a month, they can walk into meetings with a rapport that reaches beyond the boardroom.

Additionally, each new member of Missoula’s board is assigned a mentor – another board member who is responsible for bringing them up to speed and addressing their questions. Through this inclusive gesture, connections are established early and no one feels left out.

2. Motivation

Motivating board members presents a unique challenge – primarily because you can’t fall back on employee incentives when you’re dealing with volunteers. There are no pay raises, bonuses, or even benefit packages on the line, so how do you keep your board engaged with their work?

That engagement starts with onboarding at Missoula FCU. Their consistent process for new volunteers creates professional investment through what Rummel refers to as "visionary leadership": the idea that when the entire board develops and buys into a shared vision, everyone is more committed to its successful outcome.

From there, individual recognition becomes the crucial board incentive, whether it’s meant to show appreciation or to spur a little friendly competition among directors.

3. Synergy

No matter how hungry you are, you’ll never make a cake if you don’t combine the ingredients in front of you. Under the same logic, all the trust and motivation in the world mean nothing if your team has no chemistry – so start mixing things up.

The Missoula FCU board facilitates year-round cooperative opportunities for its members, culminating in an annual strategic planning weekend. During the event, board members participate in team-building sessions and exercises, which often include senior management and even spouses. “When board membership becomes such a time commitment, it’s good for our directors to have their spouses buy into the work,” said Rummel.

Those exercises have ranged from designing games and commercials to constructing towers out of random items. The purpose of each is to draw out creativity and identify individual thought processes by working together amidst hands-on, competitive conditions. As a result, the board members build synergy and cohesion not only amongst themselves, but with their credit union counterparts as well.

4. Honesty

Is your board suffering from excessive agreeability? The last element to address in your effective board development is your directors’ willingness to speak their mind and be argumentative for the sake of your credit union.

Having previously served on a board that tended to shy away from disagreements entirely, Rummel decided to make sure that his board did the opposite; he prefers to tackle disagreements head on if they generate healthy communication and outside-the-box thinking.

The Missoula board values debate enough to assign a “Dr. No”: one member in each meeting who must play devil’s advocate and vehemently disagree with the general consensus – regardless of their true opinions. “This is important work, but we can’t take ourselves too seriously,” said Rummel. “We’re doing it because we’re passionate about the credit union movement.”

The Completed Puzzle

What does Missoula FCU’s completed puzzle look like? Today, their high-performing board shows a natural candidness and a propensity for constructive debate. Their synergy has carried them through difficult economic conditions and prepared them to meet the resulting loan hits head on.

Recently, their cooperative dynamics were put to the test when they were tasked with a nation-wide search for a new CEO. Putting the needs of the credit union first and working as a united front, the team not only achieved their goals successfully, but emerged from the challenge as a stronger whole.

“People have strong personalities, but you need to get past your egos to get to the core issues,” concluded Rummel. “We have come light years in our capability to have open and honest discussions.”

Of course, there’s still the occasional moment of friction – but for Rummel, that’s a great sign that his board puzzle fits together snugly

Kevin Smith is the Director of volunteer education in CUNA's Center for Professional Development. He is responsible for developing the volunteer training programs for CUNA. This article was originally published April 3, 2014 on CU Insight.

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