Giving CU Executives Their CUES for Professional Development

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To put it "nicely,"-because that's the kind of guy he is-Fred Johnson said, he initially saw the Credit Union Executive Society as a membership organization that was lacking educational content and "woefully behind" technology.

"We actually had one of those silly Radio Shack computers with a cassette tape drive," Johnson said, recalling his first days with the organization. He observed that even the more modern versions of PCs were far and few between-only one computer for every two employees. "That was one of the things I made a note to change."

Formed in 1962 as an executive educational arm of the Credit Union National Association, its purpose was to "provide networking and educational opportunities for executives within the movement through conferences, publications and correspondence."

Ten years later, the organization hired its first full-time chief executive to ensure the non-profit association also remained non-political and self-supporting. In 1975, CUES took its first steps toward independence and today runs as a separate organization.

With big ideas and grand passion, Johnson took the helm of CUES in September of 1989. And, being a man of his word, his first financial request was for money to purchase a computer for each employee. He got it.

Making Changes

Despite his limited experience within the credit union community community-he had served for six years on the board of a federal credit union prior to joining CUES-and skepticism about his ability to lead the group, Johnson's former experience proved enough to turn CUES into what it is today, a respected professional development association with graduate level courses at some of the finest universities in the world.

"I knew I needed to make some changes and knew there were people in the movement that didn't think I had the legitimacy to be there," he said.

Johnson, 63, had spent 24 years in the military and served as an Army Infantry Officer. He was a faculty member at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he also earned his bachelor's degree in engineering. Johnson also received an MBA from Tulane University in New Orleans.

"Leadership is it," he said. "And I have had a lot of experience with that. I led units in peace time and combat."

Among the more relevant military lessons that he still practices today, Johnson said, is that people want their leaders to say what they mean and mean what they say.

"They want a leader who stands by them and never asks them to do anything they are not willing to do themselves," he said. "Leadership is about hope. I can tell you that when the bullets fly and the troops look to you and ask, 'What are we going to do now?' You better know because you only get one chance."

A career in credit union association management, Johnson acknowledges, was never on his list for potential careers.

"I was on a track where I expected to be a (military) general," he said. "But my (first) wife got sick and that changed things."

The young mother of his two sons was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1975. She lost her battle nearly 10 years later.

"I never felt like I was giving anything up," Johnson said of his career, adding that the priority at the time was to make sure his wife got the best medical care.

Tragedy has struck again for Johnson, whose second wife, Linda, died in February from lung cancer. He also has two sons by his second wife.

Now, 16 years into his job at CUES and with no plans to retire soon, Johnson has made a huge effect. CUES is now a prestigious educational program with an impressive list of graduate level courses for CU executives at top schools worldwide. It has some 4,000 primary executive members (CEOs, senior management, and directors), 3,000 members in its CUES Directors Educational Forum (board and supervisory committee members), and 150 vendor companies as members of CUES Financial Suppliers Forum.

Among the programs offered are the CEO Institute, an advanced executive education program that combines the faculties, facilities and educational resources of three of the world's top business schools-Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia; Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University in New York, and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Since its inception, the CEO Institute, for example, has had 254 CU executive graduates.

Among them was Barb Kachelski, CAE, SVP/CIO at CUES, who said she saw a lot of positive changes in her classmates at each level.

"The interesting part was that it really takes the information from 10,000 feet down to a personal level," she said, noting that classes addressed everything from strategic direction and planning, to personal management skills and styles that do and don't affect positive results, to self and classmate performance evaluations of leadership styles.

And, yes, there were even some outdoor, team-building exercises that involved ropes, ladders and a lot of trust. "All of the things I did when I was in the Army," Johnson observed.

Three separate levels of three-week courses offer intensive graduate level coursework that include relevant case studies, self-assessment exercises, team-building experiences, classroom discussions and peer interaction. Upon completion, executives earn Certified Chief Executive (CCE) designations, which represents a standard of education and excellence for credit union leaders. The accomplishment also entitles them to participate in other programs, such as The Directors Leadership Institute at London Business School in England and the Oxford Program on Negotiation at the Said Business School, University of Oxford, England.

The Art Of Persuasion

DLI offers participants tools to enhance management style, strengthen leadership capabilities, embrace change and plan proactively for the future and foster innovation by inspiring teamwork and imagination. The latter encourages participants join lawyers, politicians and influential academicians to learn the art and skill of persuasion, decision-making strategies, and discover how to develop deals that are highly beneficial and agreeable to all involved. The Oxford Programme on Negotiation, still in its inaugural year, has already had 25 executives and directors participate.

Other successful CUES programs include the Advanced Leadership Institute at Harvard, co-partnered with the California Credit Union League, now moving into its third year and graduating 60 students per year. In addition, the Directors Leadership Institute at London Business School has had some 400 students come through its doors.

Other programs include:

* School of Business Lending, which focuses on understanding the cause-and-effect of financial strategies, developing skills to effectively communicate with member business clients, evaluating the financial performance of a small business, and minimizing risk.

* School of Sales and Service, which includes training in the sales and service culture, how to initiate a sales and service program, what results can be expected, who should be involved and how to make the program effective and efficient.

* Public Policy Institute, which provides opportunities to build political awareness and skills, discover how decisions are made in Washington, learn about the future of the regulatory environment facing financial services and more.

Clear From The Start

Johnson said it was clear to him from the start that the industry needed an association strong on educational tools.

"I saw a lot of credit union leaders that were so busy running their shops that they had no time for professional development," he said. "I also knew that you could go to a university with money in hand and they would create a program for you. In the early days, they called it corporate education."

He said influence to focus on professional development came in the early 1990s with the introduction of the MCIF systems that gave marketers a new tool that could enhance their ability to sell products and services. The problem was that marketers weren't comfortable with the notion of working with numbers. And the "bean counters" that controlled those numbers weren't thrilled about giving marketers access to their databases.

Marketing Vs. Bean Counters

"I remember reading an article in the Harvard Business Review that said it was time to take the databases away from the bean counters and give them to the marketers to price products," he said. "It became a struggle between the two."

Shortly after CUNA stepped up to offer training to help resolve these issues, Johnson said, his own team got serious about expanding its own professional development focus for credit union executives.

"In 1993, we went out and hired a senior vice president of professional development to help us create a graduate level program," he said, adding that that was the first step in the creation of the CEO Institute.

With inspiration from courses already being offered at Stanford University that were being sponsored by the California Credit Union League, CUES' board gave Johnson approval to move forward.

"It was quite a risk for the board of directors," Johnson said, explaining that he promised them a payback within five years. "It took us about six, but now we're filling up every classroom and we see a great return of folks from the same credit unions."

Johnson said while he thinks the days of tellers moving up through the ranks to CEO without specialty training are long gone, CUES offers opportunity for anyone willing to do the work.

"It arms them with the tools they need to succeed," he said. "We want to make CUES members well-rounded members."

Johnson said he is proud of the evolution that CUES has made. "It's gotten the attention of other schools," he said, noting that its reputation has put CUES in the "enviable position" of being able to select top-notch programs in top-notch locations.

Across The Pond

"That's why we're at Oxford, which is arguably one of the finest universities in the world," he said, adding that this particular program on negotiation is unique in that it gives Americans a different perspective on the world's view of things.

"Americans believe that other countries see things the same way we do," he said. "Well, surprise, surprise, they don't."

Not surprising, he said, is that people are willing to travel that far to attend the courses.

"We ran that same program at Northwestern for three years and never filled a class," Johnson said. "We moved it to London and it filled up."

Borrowing the clich? from the real estate industry, he said, "Location, location, location is important" but, in this case, only as the lure. "If you don't have a decent location, you won't get them here the first time. But, if you don't have the content, they won't come back."

Johnson said despite the shrinking number of credit unions, the future of CUES looks bright.

"I had a former VP, and I emphasize former, who felt that with the number of credit unions shrinking, we had no possibility for a future here," he said. "Well, guess what? Our membership has gone up. Obviously, the numbers show that we continue to provide value."

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