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Talking points

A rich culture of communication can help every credit union up its game

Internal commmunicationsAndra Chinapen sounds almost giddy as he talks about the “barbecue campaign.”

The initiative, he explains, was an innovative way to solve a tricky communications issue: a credit union that wasn’t clear about its mandate.

When Ontario’s Meridian Credit Union ($9 billion in assets, 263,000 members) re-launched its brand in 2010, corporate leaders were clear about their updated goals but were worried to learn that on-the-ground employees couldn’t quickly and definitively answer the key question: What does Meridian stand for?

“That’s our business!” says Chinapen, Meridian manager for internal communications. “We knew we needed to sit down and redefine so that everyone at the organization could say, with confidence, ‘Yes, I can explain what Meridian stands for.’”

What followed was a year-long campaign, initiated by the internal communications team in December 2012, to focus Meridian’s message and make it resonate. The method? A company-wide “barbecue.” The idea behind it was simple: every employee should be able to answer the question “What is Meridian?” when asked at a social event like a neighbourhood barbecue. What’s more, they should be able to do so confidently and consistently.

Chinapen and his team took a serious communications issue and made it fun. They organized a series of corporate-level barbecues where executives received the program in a casual setting. As well, barbecue baskets were delivered to each branch (they included barbecue props and communications materials) so team members could practice their patter during a weekly get-together. There was even a “barbecue speech” contest in which members submitted videos of their response to the “What’s Meridian all about?” question. It all added up to a comprehensive internal communications initiative that got everyone engaged – and got the message out.

The internal communications payoff

Running a credit union is serious business and internal communications can’t always be fun and games. Whatever way they do it, though, credit unions that take internal communications seriously enjoy a substantial payoff. They’re the ones – be they large or small – that invariably boast leaders who understand the value of communicating their goals as a means of engaging workers.

That’s a make-or-break element when it comes to employee retention and it’s the key component in advancing an organization’s vision, mission and values. Employees enjoy their jobs more when they know they’re getting the full picture on major decisions. When the message is authentic, they can move forward confidently in their day-to-day work.

“Our CEO says culture trumps strategy any day of the week,” explains Alison Archambault, the director of communications and stakeholder relations at First Calgary Financial ($2.6 billion in assets, 83,000 members). “You can have the best laid-out corporate strategy, but if you don’t have a corporate culture, strongly influenced by internal communications, that strategy stands no chance of taking off.”

“Our CEO says culture trumps strategy any day of the week”

—Alison Archambault, director of communications and stakeholder relations, First Calgary Financial

First Calgary regularly receives accolades as a top employer and for its management practices. That recognition is especially important in hyper-competitive job markets like Alberta’s, where attracting and retaining staff can be a challenge.

There’s another spinoff benefit. The more good news members of the community hear about their local credit union, the more they’ll come to accept it as a brand they can trust and be interested in what it offers. Internal communications should recognize these benefits in its very DNA. Translation: every colleague of the credit union team is a communicator; every member is an ambassador for the brand. From there, success breeds success.

Capitalizing on curiosity

The most innovative companies in every business sphere have cultures of curiosity in which employees are constantly asking themselves how they can do things differently and how they can make processes even better. It’s up to each communications professional to come up with imaginative strategies to foster that culture.

First Calgary Financial, for example, recently introduced a shadowing program, in which employees can partner with senior executives for a half day to get an inside look at an area of the business that they’d like to learn more about. Perhaps they’re interested in how profit-sharing decisions are made or how risk is assessed in different situations. “We don’t sanitize the experience,” says Archambault. “It’s meant to be meaningful. These are eyeopening days and are meant to add value.”

To that end, she announces each executive in the rotation, then gives employees a chance to put forward a statement of interest explaining why they want to shadow this particular person, what they hope to gain from the experience and what sort of decisions they’d like to take part in making. From there, the executive can invite the chosen participant to join in on a day that will be most meaningful to them.

While this is a one-on-one encounter, the benefits percolate outwards. The employee is enriched, while the executive gets a different perspective than usual. The employees involved return to their jobs and share the experience with their work team, potentially opening up dialogue with an executive that the team doesn’t deal with on a regular basis. And to spread the message even further, the executive and employee involved in one of these sessions often make a quick video at the end of the day, so everyone can get a sense of the experience – what was learned and how they might do it differently next time. Simple program; big rewards.

Scoping out the landscape

At Meridian, Chinapen and his team of three make a point of checking out what other successful companies are doing well when it comes to internal communications. That means taking an hour or two a week, no matter how busy, to research how top firms around the world are connecting with their employees. He credits the managers at Meridian for encouraging all staff to take smart risks. “For us that means trying to introduce a new communications tactic each year. We’re supported by executives who understand and believe in the importance of communicating with all employees.”

“We’re supported by executives who understand and believe in the importance of communicating with all employees”

—Andra Chinapen, manager internal communications, Meridian Credit Union

This past year, that new tactic was inspired by Coca-Cola’s hugely influential animated whiteboard marketing campaign. Internal communications is, at its essence, storytelling, and Chinapen and his colleagues used the whiteboard animation technique to create a three-minute video that summed up the credit union’s strategy for frontline employees by telling a compelling (and clear-cut) story.

Telling the story

The story is key. Like any business, credit unions need to find ways to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Employees have to understand their mission and, equally importantly, relate to it. To that end, a solid internal communications policy must include powerful, consistent and frequent messaging. The best tool to reach all staff members across time zones and various work schedules, is a great intranet – that is, the communications network accessible to internal employees only. When it’s effective, a credit union’s intranet site is both easy to navigate and useful. It’s a one-stop shopping site that carries everything from practical day-to-day information to compelling stories that exemplify how the company is helping its members and the community.

Still, to have real impact, that intranet site has to be seen as a must-read. “It’s got to be a magnet site. It’s got to be vibrant,” says Linda Morris, senior vice president, business development, member and community engagement at Vancity ($17 billion in assets, 497,000 members). “The challenge is to make it both practical and fun.”

But while the intranet is at the foundation for most communication strategies in mid-sized and large credit unions, hands-on initiatives can build on the screen stuff. With that in mind, Vancity recently launched a five-day employee orientation program that goes the extra mile to ensure that every new member of the team gets a deep understanding of what a credit union is all about – and Vancity’s values in particular.

“It’s a huge investment in time,” says Morris. “But it will also motivate employees. They see right from the start how Vancity puts its money to work in a very different way to impact the community.” So ditch the dry employee handbook: Vancity’s comprehensive orientation week includes sessions with speakers from across the organization as well as on-site visits to various projects in which Vancity invests. The program has been so successful that Morris says her team is now looking at how they can run it for longtime employees as a way to reorient them and showcase how the credit union is evolving.

Connecting in person

For all the solid information you can impart and cool things you can do with the intranet and video, the ultimate communications tool for any credit union remains good, oldfashioned face time. To cultivate a strong internal culture, everyone has to be talking – and that’s a given whether you’ve got two branches or 62.

It’s a message that P.E.I.’s Provincial Credit Union ($200 million in assets, 15,000 members) has taken to heart. With a staff of 51 people in three branches, it would be easy to let internal communication slide, thinking news would spread by word of mouth. Instead, says Doug Bridges, marketing and communications officer, his team has made internal communications a priority, instituting a fixed system of semi-weekly staff meetings at each branch as well as smaller semi-weekly group meetings.

The group meetings run for one hour. Six or seven people gather with an executive to hear the latest on everything from personnel policy changes to marketing campaigns to new phone systems. Each group meets at the same time every second week so it’s a regular part of their schedules. All told, it takes about two-and-a-half days to touch base with all the groups. That policy of engagement is even more important given that Provincial Credit Union is the product of a 2013 merger between the two-branch Metro and single-branch Stella Maris. “Regular face time was key so that everyone knew what was going on and could voice their concerns throughout the process,” says Bridges.

Larger credit unions must tackle the face-time dilemma on a grander scale. Some take it to the branch level, organizing weekly “huddles” to allow front-line employees to discuss organizational priorities, campaigns and focus. Managers are also encouraged to have regular (often quarterly) face-to-face meetings with their team members to make sure everyone’s on the same page.

At First Calgary Financial, the internal communications team is experimenting with two new face-time initiatives. In one, senior executives are “adopting” a branch, which they will visit on a quarterly basis. They get to know staff on a more personal level – and learn about a specific location – by helping out with tasks for the day. The second initiative is more virtual face time, with First Calgary president and CEO Paul Kelly starring in a monthly video blog that goes out to all employees. Kelly shares the latest news and asks for feedback on credit union plans.

Putting opportunity into action

So, through various techniques, visions and values are disseminated and the stories told. If they’re authentic and well-articulated, a credit union is well on its way, supported by employees who embrace its values in every aspect of the job. That’s exciting and energizing, and it creates momentum both within the organization and among members and potential members. What can be learned from the credit unions that put internal communications at the forefront? That communicating is an opportunity, not a chore. Engage your employees and the rest will follow. ◊