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A Matter of Culture


April 2014 – Vol: 37 No. 4
by Michael Daigneault, CCD

What drives yours? Here are 10 elements to shoot for in your board room.

Business man spray paints a colorful lightbultI ask credit union leaders a lot of questions…

Indeed, asking questions is one of the best things effective consultants do. Some of my questions have proved fairly easy to answer; some, much more difficult. In recent years, one of the most challenging questions for many credit union CEOs and board leaders has been:

“What type of organizational culture are you trying to foster at your credit union?”

The difficulty in answering this question has led me to ask a second question, which has proved even more vexing:

“What type of leadership or governance culture are you trying to foster at your credit union?”

I have tried to discover what makes it is such a challenge for leaders to answer to these fundamental questions—particularly at the CEO and board levels. Perhaps the notion of organizational or leadership culture is something they haven’t had the chance to think a great deal about? Perhaps they have been focused on other things—like survival, economic shifts, new regulations or financial ratios? Maybe culture is something credit union leaders simply accept as-is—or take for granted? Maybe the very notion of organizational culture—as applied to a credit union or its governance—is confusing and needs to be clarified? (It is a fairly new construct, dating back perhaps just a few decades.) Or maybe it is all of the above?

Uncovering why it is so difficult to answer the “governance culture question” has taken me on a recent quest to figure out what organizational culture is at a deeper level—and to try to better understand why many experts feel culture is so important to organizational success.

For example, in 2010 organizational culture guru Edgar Schein warned that “cultural understanding is desirable for all of us, but it is essential to leaders if they are to lead.” Jim Dougherty wrote in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article that “company culture is part of your business model,” and “the single most important attribute to successful companies.”

If these experts are right—and culture is somehow central to success—then we should try to uncover the hurdles CU leaders face in understanding, articulating and building the culture of their institutions. In particular, we should try to identify and overcome any leadership and governance culture challenges leaders may face.

What is ‘Organizational Culture?’

Every credit union has a culture. Just what that culture is can be hard for its leaders to describe—even if they have been with the credit union for a long time. Although long-tenured board members often feel they understand their CU well, they are frequently too close to it to really take a step back and identify the unconscious beliefs and assumptions that have been guiding their decision-making.

It is, as such, a real challenge for board leaders to really see their own organizational culture. This can be the case concerning the CU overall (where leaders do not always have the kind of institutional access to pick up key cultural cues) and at the governance level (where leaders may be too personally involved to identify the underlying assumptions with any degree of objectivity). In his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar Schein formulates a formal definition of organizational culture, the essence of which is this: “what a group learns over a period of time as it solves its problems of survival in an external environment and its problems of internal integration.’

This leads us then to a new pair of questions you should yourself ask about your credit union: How much is your organizational culture simply an unconscious by-product of your founders’ or key leaders’ leadership style? And, on the other side of the coin: How much is your organizational culture the result of a conscious attempt to shape its values and assumptions? This last question brings us to look deeper into how credit union leaders can work together to improve their organizational and leadership culture.

How Do Leaders Create or Change Culture?

If you have been trying to make changes in how your organization works, you need to find out how the existing culture helps or hinders you. Accordingly, you need to determine what assumptions operate within the existing culture.

Schein groups assumptions into three basic levels: 1) artifacts—all of the surface things you would first observe, see, hear or feel when you encounter an organization; 2) stated beliefs and values; and 3) basic underlying assumptions—the unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs and values of the group. In 1983, Schein wrote that when organizations first form, there are usually dominant figures or “founders” whose own beliefs, values and assumptions provide a visible and articulated model for how the group should be structured and how it should function.

As these beliefs are put into practice, some work out and some do not. The group learns what parts of the founder’s belief system work and which should be left behind. This learning gradually creates shared assumptions. Founders and subsequent leaders continue to attempt to embed their own assumptions, but increasingly they find that other parts of the organization have their own experiences to draw on and, thus, cannot be changed.

Increasingly the learning process is shared, and the resulting cultural assumptions reflect the total group’s experience, not only the leader’s initial assumptions. But leaders continue to try to embed their own views of how things should be and, if they are powerful enough, continue to have a dominant effect on the emerging culture.

Board members need to be able to take a step back and reflect on how your organization either challenges (or doesn’t) these assumptions. Be aware that your response will be tainted by your own influence on the culture you have helped to build. This is where an unbiased third party who can remain objective and observe your board’s dynamics may be helpful.

If you are trying to examine (or change) your governance culture, you may also find yourself fighting against the organization’s design and structure; organizational systems and procedures; the design of physical space, facades and buildings; stories, legends, myths and symbols; and formal statements of organizational philosophy, creeds and charters.

Changing culture can be difficult, particularly because sometimes culture can act as a protective mechanism, with each existing assumption working to reinforce and support the other. If you try to change one assumption in isolation, the others will push back to reinforce the status quo.

Assumptions are also driven by the individuals or groups who have influence within the organization. If you want to change the culture, you sometimes have to foster a culture change within your organization’s current leaders, or modify the organization’s core governance philosophy as well as its policies and procedures.

While often the most effective, changing the behavior of key leaders can be so hard that modifying the core governance philosophy is often the best opening move. When all else fails, a change in personnel may be required.

But there is hope. Change can happen. It takes a focused effort and commitment to the following types of primary mechanisms: what leaders pay attention to, measure and control; how leaders react to critical incidents and organizational crises; deliberate role modeling and coaching; operational criteria for the allocation of rewards and status; and operational criteria for recruitment, selection, promotion, retirement and expulsion.

10 Elements of an Effective Culture

Once you and your colleagues—both the board and the senior staff leaders–have effectively recognized and thoughtfully discussed the underlying assumptions driving your current credit union leadership culture, you can turn your attention to identifying any weaknesses or gaps and shape a more effective leadership culture for the future. I challenge you to address each of the following 10 key elements to build an effective board culture for your credit union.

1. Commit to a culture of engagement. Nothing really improves unless the board and senior staff are actively engaged in the process. This means leaders have to do more than just attend monthly meetings and listen. It means they have to do their homework, and be genuinely prepared. It means they have to show up and actively engage in discussions. That way, they can co-create with senior management the future of their credit union. It’s the responsibility of senior staff leaders and all board members to be familiar with the credit union’s key programs and strategic initiatives. It’s also the responsibility of leadership to work together to improve them. To do so, you must be engaged.

2. Join with management to foster a culture of teamwork. There is a lot of literature in the business world on the importance of teamwork, but seldom is it applied directly to boards. Taking a page from Management 101, you and your colleagues must join together to foster a culture of teamwork. And not just among yourselves—be sure to include members of your credit union’s senior leadership. Who else will work with you, shoulder to shoulder, during times of challenge? Evaluate opportunities with you? Celebrate the successes with you? Share the burdens?

3. Build a culture of curiosity. Socrates was recognized by Oracle at Delphi as one of the wisest men on earth because he was a genuinely curious man who was open about what he knew and—perhaps more importantly—what he did not know. Bring your own humility to the board room. Come with an open mind and learn from both your board and senior staff colleagues. Curiosity is one of the most important attributes a director—and a board as a whole—can have.

4. If you are able to develop a culture of curiosity, you’ll likely also foster a culture of learning. You and your colleagues will bring to the table your own personal curiosities and, combined together, you will move in the direction of what Peter Senge, a leading 21st century management theorist, has called a “learning organization.” Indeed, you can then begin to look at board room (and many committee meeting) experiences not through the lens of “necessary data exchange,” but the lens of “collective learning.” Culture is a learned experience and learning models should help us to better understand culture creation and change.

5. To support your learning, you and your colleagues will need to foster a culture of inquiry. You will need to revise the very nature of your board meetings so they encourage a genuine dialogue and exchange of ideas, a culture in which great questions are recognized and appreciated. Gone should be the days of stale committee reports or—worse yet—committee reports that simply mirror the written briefing materials.

6. All this communication requires that CU leaders maintain a sincere culture of respect. Respect does not mean agreeing to everything anyone else suggests. It does not simply mean being “nice.” It does mean deeply listening to—and honoring—other leaders’ voices in the process of decision-making. It also means valuing others’ contributions and knowing the boundaries of the role you each are carrying out.

7. Be mindful that you have all committed your time, talents and expertise to the CU board for the same reason—to be of service. Focus on that commitment. Build a culture of service, remembering that the roots of the CU movement are deep. For more than 100 years, credit unions have been providing quality financial services to their members. Above all else, we are driven as a movement by our commitment to cooperative principles. Voluntary and open membership, member economic participation and rewards are at least as—or more important than—the bottom line.

8. Because you are stewards of other people’s funds and have committed to a culture of service, you and your colleagues should—and will—be held to a very high standard. You will need to, therefore, build a strong culture of diligence. Some components of this part of your culture will be informal. Together you and your colleagues will determine mutually agreed-upon standards and expectations for how you will act and govern the CU. Other, more formal standards will be imposed upon your CU by regulators. In either case, you and your colleagues must pledge that together you will be eternally vigilant on both the formal and the informal standards guiding your decisions and actions.

9. As stewards of other people’s funds, and because as a CU you are committed not only to a culture of service but also to cooperative principles, you must commit to a culture of accountability. Of course, you must hold each other accountable and, clearly, accountability extends to your credit union’s CEO and, ultimately, the staff. You must model a culture of respect from the top-down, the same way you must model accountability.

10. Ultimately what every organization wants to build is a culture of trust. You want a trusting relationship with your members, your staff, your regulators and with the public. It’s the right thing to do and can only benefit your business bottom line as well.

In all, building a culture that breeds success for your CU will not be an easy journey, but is certainly one that’s worthy of the effort. Challenge your organization’s long-held assumptions. Commit yourself. Be engaged. Ask your questions. Leave your ego at the door. Respect one another. Hold each other accountable. And do the right thing. Having done so, you will earn the trust that your members place in your leadership!

Michael G. Daigneault, CCD, is CEO of Quantum Governance, L3C, a low-profit limited liability service organization dedicated to the public good. It is one of the very first such legal entities in the United States. A CUES strategic partner, Quantum Governance provides thoughtful governance and strategy assessments—as well as dynamic retreats—to credit unions, leagues and nonprofits throughout the United States.

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