A Knight, A Skater, And Advice

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ANAHEIM, Calif.-Credit union leaders were offered management advice and other keen insights last week from a couple of unlikely sources: a British knight and a professional skateboarder.

Those two, Sir Ken Robinson and Tony Hawk, respectively, were joined by CUNA CEO Bill Cheney and Filene Research Executive Director Mark Meyer last week during an intriguing discussion hosted by CO-OP Financial Services as part of its THINK11! Conference here.

The discussion was hosted by former CNN correspondent and financial journalist Valerie Morris. During the one-hour give and take, which followed earlier, separate presentations by Robinson (well-known author on creativity and organizational dynamics) and Hawk, the group offered a variety of differing perspectives on where opportunities and threats for credit unions may lie, along with examining how to encourage more creativity from CU staff.

Below is a look at some of what was shared during the meeting:

Morris: To be innovative and show creativity, what does the credit union movement have to do?
Robinson
: One of the myths of creativity is that it's often about lone individuals. Often they do create the spark, but innovation more often than not comes from collaboration and people working collaboratively. (Thomas) Edison's real genius was motivating groups of people. Different perspectives come from different disciplines.

One thing that interested me about the Beatles is that when they first burst on the scene I think a lot of people felt they were four clones of each other; four parts of the same person. But when the got to the end of their careers as the Beatles what we could see very clearly is how different they all were. Great teams are highly diverse. They have a dynamic process. You can have a team of very different people and they paralyze each other, so they need a process. The great part of creative teams is that when they are done they break up. There is a difference between creative teams and committees.

Morris: What do we do to position credit unions to survive?
Cheney: So much of what we have heard today is about passion and purpose, and in the credit union movement we have so much of a passion and a purpose. I think one of the things we're lacking, not at the credit union level but at the movement level, is a vision for credit unions. I think for far too long we have let others define us what we are, often as less-sophisticated, taxpayer subsidized versions of banks. And that's not what we are at all. We are an incredible resource for consumers. I think the answer is we need to define what our future should be and be innovative in our communications so that people understand the value we deliver to consumers.

Morris: What are stumbling blocks to creativity?
MEYER: I think if you go back to 1909, just to glance back, to the imagination of the power and vision of one individual who has had a tremendous influence on all of us in this room today. Ed Filene ignited a vision. I don't think he had any idea what this would be. We were his hobby. It was people who grabbed the idea. I think Ed would say this crisis is a moment. Don't be disrupted by it. He would say that many of our sacred cows aren't the issues, the issue is collaboration. So collaborate.

Q: What can credit unions do better?
Hawk: I think it's more of showing your passion for the credit union concept as well, and not just showing facts and figures and your rates. It's about why I love being here and why I chose to be here. You can show all the advantages, but it's about more than being a product.

Cheney: To me some of this gets back to passion. Going into and out of this financial crisis, most people have been focused on numbers, building capital, regulation, and legislation. We have been focusing on the business side of our business, and we needed to.

But as we emerge, I think it's important that again we focus on our real passion, which is our members. What a better time to recommit ourselves. The numbers will take care of themselves. As we heard from Disney, the very last part of their focus is the financial results. It's time to get back to focus on our members which is where the passion is.

Robinson: It does seem to me that there are circumstances here for credit unions that are probably unprecedentedly favorable for you. On one hand there has never been so much distrust and dissatisfaction with financial services in general. People of my generation have never had more skepticism and cynicism, particularly toward Wall Street. So there is a gap out there. At the same time, there is increasingly in our culture an increasing reliance on self help. We need to create communities and take care of ourselves. That's a great principal in America. It seems to me the credit union movement has both of those points working for it. It allows people to work together and to work with people they trust. I think there is an opportunity to reposition this movement as a social movement.

Morris: How does the CU movement take advantage?
Meyer: I think there are three ways. One, Are people invited to participate in innovation, and do they know it's important to the credit union and the system. People get the CU model, but are waiting to be asked to participate. Two, if you make the invitation, do your systems align with it, meaning your performance measurement and rewards? Three, make it real. Is R&D even a part of your budget? When you're building your three and five-year business plan, do you build into it recognizing and creating rising stars?

Morris: How do you invite people to participate?
Robinson: It's all about the culture. It's all about the values and modes of behavior. In all cultures you're allowed to do certain things and are not allowed to do other things. I think what happens in a lot of organizations is that people are not allowed to participate. They sit there with their brains in neutral. It's about much more than having an Ideas Box. There are three steps to inviting people to participate. One, personal. It's about giving each member of the organization the permission and the tools to participate. Two, organizational. At Pixar, they've won awards for everything they've done. It's not accidental. They have Pixar University, a series of workshops and seminars, and everybody on the payroll can attend for up to four hours per week. Everybody. One of the results is there is a tremendous sense of common culture. It sends a constant flow of new ideas throughout the organization. You can't have creativity without stimulating the imagination. Three, it's about realizing not everything is top down.

You have to be open to unforeseen possibilities. That has been (Tony Hawk's) trajectory.

What creators know intuitively is it's not their job to have all great ideas. In the end someone has to make the call, and that's the job of the leader. But the leader's job is to encourage everyone to be part of the process.

Robinson: Why do you call it a trick? I think the word trick detracts from it.

Hawk: There are hands and feet, there are so many facets to it it's more than a move, it's a trick. But there is a strange vernacular in skating.

Audience Member Question: How should we view CUs? Creative idea? Fad? Mainstream idea? Faded?
Weber: I believe at this defining moment the movement has the possibility of being extraordinarily mainstream, which it is with one-in-three Americans belonging. I would say it's evolving toward mainstream. However, credit unions have always ranked highly on trust, but research done immediately after the crisis finds one subset of that group trusts banks more than credit unions, and that's the young adult population.

Cheney: Sir Ken talked about the opportunity for credit unions in this environment. Credit unions ARE a social network. It's a network of people who have come together to help other people. Some people may find that funny, but if they do it's because they don't understand what they're all about. We need to translate that through this opportunity of social networking with a social network and into greater success for the credit union movement. I think there is a danger of fading if we don't take the opportunity, because banks are also recovering from this crisis. Now is the time for us.

Robinson: I think above all people do need a sense of trust in a community, but they want to be treated as individuals. If you have two or more children, my bet is they are completely different from one another. You would never confuse them, would you? Which one are you again? It's the other piece of this equation. We all have our own biographies. They do want to be recognized as individuals. I think if credit unions do that, you have a winning formula.

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