Your Challenge? Boiling It Down To A Sentence

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It was proceeding like your standard mystery shop. The undercover "shoppers" were recording how long before they were greeted by a branch rep, opening up accounts, making other mental notes. The usual stuff. But then the mystery shoppers added one more question: "Tell me, why should I do business with you instead of the bank across the street?"

The answers those mystery shoppers got were, in most cases, non-answers. "In more than two thirds of the cases, front-line people had no good answer to that question," noted William Taylor, sharing one research firm's experience. "Either they run and hide, or more often than not, they make something up on the fly that bears nothing to do with what the bank's own view is. How can any organization expect to outperform its rivals if its own people can't explain simply and convincingly why it's better than its rivals? That is the real problem at so many established organizations; that's the huge opportunity for leaders and innovators of all kinds."

Taylor, the founding editor of Fast Company magazine, believes that in an era of "hyper-competition, the only way to stand out from the crowd is to stand for something special." Credit unions, he believes, have that "something special," but...

"Winning organizations today don't just offer competitive products and services; they stand for ideas," Taylor said. "Ideas that stand for reshaping the sense of what is possible. The most successful organizations don't just try to out-compete their rivals, they try to redefine their industries in a world filled with 'me, too' thinking. It's hard to do, which is why so many organizations fail to break from the pack."

Yet having that "psychological connection" with consumers isn't sufficient if no one knows, according to Taylor, who shared his insights during the California/Nevada leagues' annual meeting. Taylor asked CU leaders what might happen if researchers walked into their shops and "started tapping people on the shoulder and asking, 'What's special, what's truly distinctive about how you do things?' Would they have something clear and simple and meaningful to say? Would they all say the same thing? Would what they say be demonstrably different from what your top two or three competitors say?"

Delivering on that, he noted, is the big and usually unmet challenge. "It's not good enough anymore to be pretty good at everything," he observed. "You have to be as an organization the 'most' of something. The most elegant. The most simple. The most affordable. The most global. The most local. For so long so many of us were comfortable operating in the middle of the road, because that's what felt safe and secure. But today, the middle of the road has become the road to nowhere. What are you the most of in your marketplace, and how do you become even more of that?"

Worst Business In History of Business

Before credit unions could object and complain that Taylor just doesn't understand the business-the supermodel-thin margins, the assessments, etc., he said quit pouting.

"The one field that has had it harder than you is the airline business. This is without question the worst business in the history of business," he said. "This industry has lost more money in its history than it has made in North America. And yet amidst all of this carnage, there is the one airline that keeps making money, and we all know it's Southwest. They are kind of the credit union of the airline business. They have been around 38 years and have never had a money-losing year. Ask Southwest Airlines' people what business they are in and they will answer, 'We are in the freedom business.' All of its crazy tactics are in service to this message. It has become a passion brand. Southwest is more than just a company, it's a cause. It stands for something special and hopeful in an industry that is fundamentally broken. Sound familiar?"

Credit union execs have had both hands full when leaving the open bar at the chapter meeting the past few years, but the financial crisis isn't the crisis, Taylor said. "My concern is that so many companies are learning the wrong lesson. They are becoming conservative and risk-averse. The question for every credit union leader is, 'Will you emerge from this sense of turmoil with a greater sense of connection with your members and colleagues, and with a greater connection to your communities?' If your answer is yes, then you will emerge victorious."

Credit unions, he continued, are both "timeless and timely. Set aside your bottom line and regulatory concerns and ask yourself what are the core ideas that define us?"

Taylor said CU leaders everywhere are missing the point if they're worrying about challenges that are keeping them up at night. "What you should be asking is 'What is it that gets you up in the morning?'"

All of this comes back to how an employee responds when asked why the credit union is worth joining, or, as Claire Booth Luce once asked President Kennedy, "What is your sentence?"

"Ask yourself, What is the sentence for your credit union? For the credit union movement? For you as a credit union leader?"

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at

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