Food For Thought From Lunch With CU Board Members

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I have, over the years, poked the occasional jest at the demographic of the average credit union board member (Why did actor George Burns resign his CU board seat just prior to his death? He got tired of the other board members calling him "junior." So it was most interesting to sit down to lunch with a half-dozen board members, along with a consultant who had decades of experience (apparently it's a theme) working with boards.

It was interesting for a bucket of reasons ranging from an awareness by at least one board member that its high school yearbook photos are all black and white, to the reasons some became involved, to the fact they were all chatty and chipper at noon, even though that morning's session at NAFCU's Volunteers Conference had started at 7 a.m. and the room had been full (surely, at least one of them had slapped at the alarm that morning with the thought, "For this I volunteered?"). NAFCU's crack-of-the-morning sessions are reportedly a holdover from former CEO (and retired Marine general) Ken Robinson.

"I'm 53 years old, and I am the youngest guy on our board," observed one director from a Florida credit union who noted that at a previous board meeting he had broached the idea of moving some of the older board members into non-voting, emeritus positions. The response? "A lead balloon," he answered. But that balloon got aloft when another, older board member pitched the idea. Now the challenge, he said, is where to find new board members. Tradition-and it's limited at the credit union-has been to get new board members from the Supervisory Committee.

"But those are all accountants; analytical types," pointed out the consultant at the table. "You're getting the same type of person."

"What about term limits?" asked a volunteer from a Hawaii credit union.

"It's not a good idea if it results from not having the guts to get rid of one person," answered another director.

"You don't owe anyone a board slot," pointed out the consultant. "The only person you owe is the member."

By CU board standards, one of the volunteers present was practically an infant. He is just 38 and, remarkably, is serving his third term on the board. Is he the youngest? "By far," he laughed. "I'm still the youngest by about 20 years. The big problem for a younger person is the time commitment. I have to pick up my son from school, then take him home, then run to a soccer game and then to a board meeting."

The generation gap was evident, he recalled, when he first told fellow board members he had no interest in ever visiting a branch-he was content to conduct business electronically. Other members of the board thought he was nuts.

And the whippersnapper also had this insight: "One problem is that if you are replacing a 30-year board member, you can give the impression you want someone to volunteer for the next 30 years. We tell people we're going to need them for three years, and if that's all they can do, that's OK."

Another problem is the size of many board packages. Two of those at lunch from the same CU said their monthly packet is about 160 pages (there is an executive summary).

And yet another bump comes from the "what we say vs. what we do department." "Credit unions invite people to be part of the board because this person doesn't think like the board does, and then they beat them up when they don't think like the board does."

"Too many board members don't want to leave because of the social aspect," noted the consultant. "These are their friends. I know of one guy who told the board not to renominate him, and when they didn't he had a fit. He wanted his trip to Hawaii. And now we've got board members from the Northeast who retire to Florida but who want to stay on the board-because they want the credit union to pay for them to fly home for the meetings."

One person said they knew of a credit union where the policy is if a board member retires from his or her full-time job, they must also retire from the board.

Still, for at least one person, it's not like lots of members are vying for board seats. "We haven't had a contested election in 25 years," he noted, recalling that the last contested election was when he was a new member and noticed all the races were unopposed. So he threw his hat in the ring, where it was promptly stepped on. He ended up joining the Supervisory Committee.

After the consultant threw out the idea of electronic voting and board package distribution, some at the table said they were regularly using e-mail, but none had heard of the e-voting option (available through Constitution Corporate's, among others).

From the brief lunch discussion, it seems there will be more turnover among boards. The key seems to be in the exit strategy. "I think we're going to see more emeritus titles for not just board members, but CEOs," said the consultant. "People are looking for ways to leave gracefully."

Frank J. Diekmann is editor of The Credit Union Journal. He can be reached at P.O. Box 4387, West Palm Beach, FL 33402, or e-mail fdiekmann

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