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Leveraging the people factor

Nature and nurture go far to ensure you have the best staff possible

Finding the best staff

Human resources experts in financial services co-ops may have the same priorities as their counterparts, but the way in which they recruit and train employees is different.

First, they need to identify and seek out people whose principles and attitudes fit with the well-defined culture of their organizations. Then, they must make sure to constantly nurture and foster those shared values in all their work colleagues.

Hiring for a values fit

The distinction often starts right at the hiring process. In the credit union system, for example, a staff candidate with superior people skills can sometimes trump one with all kinds of technical training and years of experience. Tania Goodine, executive vice president, engagement, at Libro Credit Union, based in London, Ont., (60,000 members, $1.9 billion assets), says her experience bears this out. When recruiting, Libro, which currently has 560 employees, lets applicants know exactly what it is looking for and seeks out people with like-minded principles.

“Our philosophy is definitely to hire for [a] values and attitude fit,” she says. “We figure that we can teach people the technical parts of their jobs, especially when it’s a branch or a front-line position. We can teach people how to use the banking system or the ins and outs of a product, but it’s much harder to teach people to be proactive, to have a service attitude and to care about their community. That’s just part of who they are.”

“Our philosophy is definitely to hire for [a] values and attitude fit. We figure that we can teach people the technical parts of their jobs, especially when it’s a branch or a front-line position”

—Tania Goodine, executive VP engagement, Libro Credit Union

Ellen Pekeles, senior vice president, operations at British Columbia’s Vancity ($17.5 billion in assets, 501,000 members), agrees. “Recruiting for values is an art, not a science and I would say we screen for skills and hire for fit,” she says. “We can tell when someone has memorized our website versus someone who is truly immersed in our communities through volunteer work or just their description of why they want to come to Vancity. We are becoming very skilled at screening people out who won’t be a fit and we spend a lot of time assessing whether there is a fit.”

Vancity is a member of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GABV) (See “Too Good to Fail” ) and John Allen, vice president, people solutions, is part of a team of HR experts that shares ideas about how to ensure employees truly understand the vision of their organization. He says Vancity often finds that the people who have the right values and are a good fit “are people who are making conscious career decisions. Many of them have been trying to get a job with Vancity for quite some time. We are a destination employer in many ways.”

To reinforce its fundamental credos, Vancity has developed a five-day immersion program for new employees that demonstrates its commitment to community, partners and the credit union system. Allen notes that new hires can opt out at the end of the program if they decide the culture isn’t right for them. “So far only one person has opted out,” he explains. “He was a mortgage broker and investment specialist who was really looking to maximize his income.” Adds Pekeles: “This is not your traditional orientation. It doesn’t focus on policy and stuff like that. It focuses entirely on [the key elements of] our vision and strategy,” such as Vancity’s emphasis on diversity.

Recruiting from a small pool

The right sort of people may be actively seeking work at places such as Vancity, which serves large urban areas, but credit unions in smaller communities don’t have as many candidates to choose from. That’s an issue for Sandra McDowell, vice president of communications and culture at First Credit Union (FCU) in Powell River, B.C. ($258 million in assets, 10,000 members). FCU, which has 140 employees in six communities, must find a balance between its demands and the skills and personalities of the people who are available. McDowell still sets her standards high, however.

“What we look for in terms of the people we hire is an aptitude for learning – learning agility – as well as emotional intelligence,” McDowell says. “[We look at] how they handle themselves and how they interact with others. Those two pieces are the key to people having the confidence to be able to ask questions and facilitate thinking.”

“What we look for in terms of the people we hire is an aptitude for learning – learning agility – as well as emotional intelligence”

—Sandra McDowell, VP communications and culture, First Credit Union

Lorri Lochrie, manager of people solutions at
Central 1 Credit Union, which provides HR advisory services for member credit unions, says smaller and mid-sized credit unions are working together to share expertise that they need but can’t afford on their own. For example, some credit unions in B.C. that have shared insurance and wealth management services are now joining forces on risk management. “With all the new regulations, small credit unions may not have the staff expertise and don’t need someone full time, but they can get together and share resources,” Lochrie says.

Another challenge all credit unions face is the need to replace retiring baby boomers. Libro has identified about a dozen people who expect to retire in the next few years and is taking steps to ensure their replacements have the experience and training they need.

Delivering great service for ‘best employers’

Such proactive hiring policy approaches are paying off. For the last nine years credit unions have placed first in customer service in an independent survey of financial services providers conducted by the market research company Ipsos. This effective matchmaking is a two-way street, judging by the way many credit union employees feel about their workplaces.

Regina-based Conexus Credit Union ($6.4 billion in assets, 116,000 members), North Vancouver’s BlueShore Financial ($3 billion in assets, 40,000 members) and Duncan, B.C.–headquartered Island Savings Credit Union ($1.48 billion in assets, 48,709 members) all made the 2014 list of the top 50 Best Employers in Canada, produced by the global HR consulting company Aon Hewitt. As well, the Great Place to Work® Institute Canada listed Credit Union Central of Saskatchewan (SaskCentral) and Windsor Family Credit Union ($1 billion in assets, 32,742 members) among its top 50 employers for 2014. Many other financial services co-ops in Canada regularly receive such kudos, too.

Maintaining employee training

Good hiring practices are key to finding the right values fit; however, HR experts throughout the system agree their work doesn’t stop there. It’s critical, many say, to find ways of sustaining that focus on the credit union philosophy and collaboration.

Vancity, for one, is expanding its five-day program to include all 2,500 staff, a process that will take two years. The program will be permanent, says John Allen.

ROI of a hire

Lorri Lochrie says that the growing need for credit unions to cooperate is the reason the PeopleFocus 2014 conference in November will highlight collaboration. FCU’s Sandra McDowell is one the speakers at the seventh- annual event, which brings together credit union leaders from the across the country.

While the PeopleFocus conference is open to all credit unions, CUSOURCE’s annual conference is geared to large credit unions across the country with 40 to 50 HR executives invited to attend. Cheryl Byrne,CEO of CUSOURCE says it has also identified collaboration as an important way to leverage training dollars. She says there has been great success with a national mentoring program that matches younger staff with an experienced person at another credit union. This mentoring approach allows someone working in a smaller credit union to tap into experience and skills that may not be present in their organization and also opens the door to a comfortable way to raise career issues.

Byrne also says the demand is growing for a newer style of virtual learning – one that has an online instructor. This e-classroom approach offers the savings of studying from home or work and the benefits of personal interaction. “It used to be a perk for people to get away for a couple days at a conference or class but with most people having spouses who work and children to care for, many people prefer to learn online,” Byrne says.

CUSOURCE has offered virtual conferences for everyone from agricultural lenders to front-line staff, providing the opportunity to attend a series of webinars spread over several days.

Michelle Cummings, client solutions manager at CUSOURCE, says there has also been great demand for courses needed to meet regulatory compliance requirements – privacy, anti-money laundering and disability issues. In many cases staff need annual updates and reviews in order to follow the regulations. Cummings says people love shorter online classes they can take in segments, while staying in their office or branch and keeping up with their regular work.

Goodine says Libro uses a variety of training approaches, relying on vendors for some updates, turning to CUSOURCE for other services and using some outside partners for coaching and sales force training.

Coaching creates trust

First Credit Union’s McDowell says that in 2010 her credit union introduced a coaching culture to foster leadership and original thinking. The key to the coaching process, she explains, is that people ask questions rather than tell others what to do. “When we ask questions of each other we facilitate thinking, grow confidence and [encourage] engagement,” she says. “This is not an easy thing to do because we have all grown up in a culture of telling everybody what we think so when we have to stop and listen, the change is easier said than done.”

FCU’s senior team had external training in the Expedition Coaching™ model designed to give participants “an enhanced framework for communicating and holding conversations with others that will engage, empower and inspire forward action with people at all levels in the workplace,” according to program literature. Then, they trained managers and employees in how to coach one another. McDowell says she even uses coaching when talking to her husband and sons and it works because the method is based on trust. They now know she genuinely is seeking answers and trying to get them thinking – not setting them up to be told what to do.

FCU has now tied the coaching technique to the sales process and has trained staff to use the questioning approach when dealing with members in order to understand their needs. “[Our system of coaching] needs to become a way of being,” McDowell says, “and to become a way of being takes trust. Trust is the foundation of all of this.”

Coaching is a good complement to a culture that already was based on trust, so FCU is just building on that strong base, McDowell says. To make sure that FCU maintains a coaching atmosphere, an action team regularly evaluates how coaching is working. “I would say our culture is shifting and we are embracing it, but there is no question that if we turn off our focus it would slide back. There would be pockets of people who had sustainable change, but many would not,” McDowell says.

Walking the walk

Holly Herman, an American coach, consultant and former credit union executive, says key elements have to be present to maximize staff motivation. “Every employee needs to understand where the credit union is headed [and] that the future will be a better place,” she says. “What exciting things are coming and does everyone know what those are?”

Libro’s Tania Goodine understands this well. Libro was born out of the 2013 merger between Libro Financial and United Communities Credit Union. Goodine says the union has succeeded in part because of a focus on culture. “The best culture definition I’ve ever heard is ‘the way we do things around here,’” she says. She notes that it is easy to underestimate the little things, such as language and procedural differences, that existed between the two organizations.

Those differences could have led to incorrect assumptions, but because United Communities had gone through previous mergers, its executives learned the importance of these topics and ensured the combined organization took advantage of this experience. Libro has created a team that is giving advice on these fronts to the senior executives. The team meets privately with CEO Stephen Bolton four or five times a year.

Openness, too, was fundamental during the merger, Goodine says. “Transparency about the process was important because we are accountable to our owners,” she says. “It creates a whole different mentality.” When the merger was announced both boards provided an employment guarantee, which took away uncertainty and reduced anxiety. Still, many people did wind up in different roles, working with different teams, while others had to apply for new jobs. Libro reduced competition for jobs as much as possible to smooth the process and reduce the stress.

Understanding the bigger picture

It’s also important that staff know that what they do matters and how their contribution fits into the organization as a whole. Staff do best when they understand the bigger picture and how a credit union is making life better in its community, says Holly Herman, who also highlights the need to provide ongoing training.

That big-picture perspective is at the heart of today’s best HR practices at credit unions, wrote Michael Neill, in Attributes and Skills of High-Performing Sales and Service Staff, a report done for Filene Research Institute, which examined the special attributes credit union staff need to succeed.

Among Neill’s key recommendations:

  • When hiring look for employees who pick up on behavioral cues, ask good questions and listen with ears attuned to finding   solutions.
  • Coach regularly so you can go beyond training and reinforce good practices.
  • Ensure managers include employees in decision making, give them appropriate autonomy and reward them not just for results but for the behaviours that lead to results.

In his report Neill notes that the fundamental difference between credit unions and other financial services institutions means they need a different focus when approaching sales or advisory efforts. Their goal is to help members, not generate more profits. “Credit unions exist to improve the financial well-being of their members and thus cannot replicate a product-centric model without giving up their foundational core values,” he writes.

That’s a home truth that is ideally reflected in every credit union worker – from the front-line teller all the way up.◊