In 2012, Lake Michigan Credit Union added 178 employees, an increase of 34 percent over the previous year. We were growing quickly and needed more staff to support our short- and long-term goals. Forty of the new employees resulted from our merger with Citizens Credit Union in June of 2010. Plus, we gained 20 new staff members when the CU purchased an insurance agency in 2011.
With this rapid growth came the challenge of culture. These 178 new team members came from over 40 different organizations, all with their own unique cultures. The new team members needed to understand, embrace and live the Lake Michigan CU culture but it became increasingly clear that our culture had been “diluted” over the previous five years. Even longer term staff didn’t truly know how to define the Lake Michigan CU culture.
When I attended CUES School of Strategic Marketing in 2012, lead faculty Mark Weber of CUES Supplier member Weber Marketing Group, Seattle, said “Culture is your internal brand and has a direct impact on your external brand.”
I knew we needed to improve our internal brand if we were going to effectively manage high growth, and I knew that marketing needed to be a part of that initiative.
$3.1 billion/272,000-member Lake Michigan CU is headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich., with 37 branches. Additionally, we have two mortgage-only offices. Our business units include retail banking, mortgage lending, commercial banking, auto loans, insurance, investments, a sophisticated online/mobile banking capability, and an auto center (selling quality, previously owned cars).
In early 2013, the CU was granted an expanded charter covering the entire lower peninsula of Michigan, allowing us to grow beyond our previous charter, which covered about half of the west side of the state.
Lake Michigan CU has been experiencing high-velocity growth, setting new records for each of the past four years, and gaining recognition as one of the top performing credit unions in the nation. For example, according to CUES Supplier member Callahan & Associates as of Sept. 13, out of the 208 $1+ billion U.S., credit unions, Lake Michigan CU ranked third in return on assets; eighth for lowest delinquency ratio at 0.16 percent; eighth lowest in net charge-off ratio at 0.08 percent; and eighth in the nation in total return to member.
Consider these performance markers at the end of calendar year 2013:
- Members served: 272,000;
- New members added during the year: 15,000;
- Asset size: $3.0 billion (growth of 10 percent);
- Serviced and portfolioed mortgages: $5.67 billion;
- Capital ratio: 11.27 percent;
- Return-on-assets: 1.87 percent;
- Retained earnings: $333 million; and
- Net income: $54 million.
While these numbers represent strong measures of success, our culture needed to catch up.
Getting on the Team
In 2011, our president/CEO, Sandra Jelinski, a CUES member, identified the need for a cultural “fix.” She tasked SVP/Human Resources and Training Nora Swart to direct this initiative. Swart formed a five-person team to survey the staff to get a “temperature” reading on our current culture. She also hired Michael Hudson, Ph.D., president of Credit Union Strategy, Rehoboth Beach, Del., whom Jelinski had met at a CU conference. Hudson was to assist in several focus groups of staff from all levels of the organization.
Shortly after I attended CUES School of Strategic Marketing I in July 2012, Swart set out to form a taskforce of three people from senior management to head-up the culture improvement initiative.
Motivated by the school, I shared my interest in helping contribute in the development of a unified and clearly defined culture with our CEO, as well as the need to have the highest ranking marketing staff member on the culture taskforce to help ensure our “internal brand” was effectively developed. She agreed and Swart, Chief Information/Technologies Services Officer Razi Qadri and I formed the three-person taskforce. We were to work directly with Hudson, who we viewed as an unbiased outside consultant.
Getting to Work
In essence, we were starting from scratch. The focus groups and surveys confirmed what we believed would be the case. Staff shared dozens of different interpretations of what our culture was and what it should be. This lack of consistency, along with other feedback from the focus groups and surveys helped us identify five major priority areas that needed to be addressed:
1. Culture Definition: We needed to clearly identify and define the key characteristics of our culture that could be articulated to all staff. This way, everyone would know what we were striving for from a cultural standpoint.
2. Improved Communication: Staff expressed a deep interest and desire to learn more about what was going on in other departments, key company programs, and to get together to hear and learn about the culture development at Lake Michigan CU. They wanted a consistent message and communication method, plus better communication tools and access to feedback channels.
3. Clearly Defined Processes: Rapid growth was straining our processes. To foster a more positive culture, clearly defined processes needed to be put in place for staff in virtually all areas. This would result in the creation of project planning methods, access to information and collection of frontline input to form “best practices” that would allow staff to do their jobs with the greatest efficiency and accuracy, and improve job satisfaction. A need for more training, at all levels, was also identified.
4. More Visible Leadership: With such rapid growth, management was kept busy managing the growth, which resulted in less interaction with other business units and this was recognized by staff. Employees indicated in the focus groups and in the online survey a strong desire for more frequent visibility and interaction with management along with performance coaching.
5. Formal Recognition Program: While many employees felt they were indeed recognized by their co-workers and supervisor for a job well done, they perceived a gap in formal recognition in which individuals and departments would be acknowledged for superior performance. The research revealed team morale and spirit were low because of a perception of “branches” vs “corporate” and without team-building events and a knowledge of where we were going as a company. Staff also identified a desire for performance coaching, to enable team members to achieve their full potential.
The Culture Development team determined we would focus on the first two areas staff identified, beginning with the creation of a definition of our culture. The senior management team was presented with the results from the focus groups and the staff questionnaires. We met off-site to review where we have been as an organization and where we wanted to go. We then broke the 10-member senior management team into small groups and developed a list of the five characteristics we felt were the basic foundation to building and sustaining a strong culture, taking our history into consideration.
We re-grouped to review each group’s five key characteristics. Over the next few weeks, we revisited the lists and eliminated off-target characteristics until we had five words that we all felt exemplified the core values of our ideal culture. Next, we developed descriptions for each of the words, which formed the acronym PRIDE.
The definition was shared with all manager-level staff, who shared it with direct reports, so that over the course of a week all employees were presented with the new culture definition. Jelinski followed up with a series of emails, highlighting each word, and the importance of staying focused on building a strong culture.
To help communicate and engage the staff, we held an open process so staff could nominate a “culture ambassador,” a co-worker they felt exemplified the five cultural qualities found in our PRIDE definition. All employees, excluding the senior management team and manager level staff, were eligible. A total of 15 “culture ambassadors” were selected out of numerous candidates. The group of ambassadors met with our three person senior management team to identify activities and actions that would promote our new culture initiative.
Together with senior management, we identified the need to organize a company-wide kick-off of the culture initiative where the culture definition would be introduced along with the ambassador team. Because of the large number of staff, spread across numerous cities and locations, we established 10 identical meetings, Monday-Friday, with a morning and afternoon session, to ensure every staff member had the opportunity to attend in person.
Sharing the Message
To enhance internal branding for our culture initiative, a logo was created by marketing centered around the PRIDE acronym. It was also essential for the senior management team to be present at the official culture kick-off and for the message to be delivered by our CEO.
From a presentation standpoint we felt it would be beneficial to have a video message from each ambassador with each describing their favorite PRIDE word. This would be a great way for the staff to hear first-hand from the ambassadors who would present their favorite PRIDE word in their own unique way.
Further, Jelinski would introduce each of the five words that made up our cultural definition and emphasize why each was important, for our members, and staff.
Additionally, I felt it would be impactful if we asked any staff member, or group of staff members, who wanted to share what they liked about the cultural definition to be able to do so and to capture it on video.
Finally, since our credit union was almost 80 years old, with staffing levels growing by double-digits each of the past five years, we thought it would be good to have a video showcasing (briefly) our growth and history and the staff that made the growth possible. Both of these videos were produced by marketing, along with the ambassador videos.
Since the kick-off meetings in November of 2012, manager update meetings have been held along with regular communication to the staff about the progress of the culture initiative. The ambassadors have helped organize a company-wide outing to a local minor league baseball game, special PRIDE emphasis days, PRIDE team building events and activities, and a week of fun activities for each department to participate in.
The ambassadors also send out a monthly newsletter highlighting one or more of the PRIDE words as well as recognizing staff members who are nominated for a PRIDE Impact Award for living and demonstrating the values of our culture.
Along with a personal note and an impact certificate, those nominated are given a “gift bag” from a PRIDE ambassador. Bags feature the PRIDE logo and contain a small gift such as a mouse pad, picture frame, Lake Michigan CU travel mug, plus candy.
The marketing department also worked with the ambassadors and Information Services to create a new intranet link that features photographs and bios for each of the ambassadors, board members and the senior management team, to help create more interest, awareness and participation.
For a company our size it takes up to five years to fully integrate a meaningful cultural change that team members embrace, demonstrate and live each day. We are about half-way through the initial process and have achieved some very positive results. With culture, the process is never really finished. It’s an ongoing, “living process” that grows and strengthens with time.
Approximately 91 percent of employees know three to five of our key cultural values, and eight to 15 are nominated each month by co-workers for demonstrating one or more of the cultural characteristics.
Additionally, follow-up questionnaires—measuring staff engagement, satisfaction and attitudes/feelings toward the overall culture at Lake Michigan CU—are emailed to all staff regularly to keep senior management updated on our culture process and to compare improvements with our initial, pre-culture kick-off, survey.
After the culture kick-off, the level of communication relating to culture, from including culture conversations in weekly staff meetings, to emails, staff cookouts and after work get-togethers, went up an estimated 10 times, helping to further foster and promote our culture.
What I Learned
During this process, I learned that a company’s culture is an expression of its personality and that Mark Weber was right: “Culture is your internal brand and has a direct impact on your external brand.” I realized, too, how fortunate Lake Michigan CU was to have our president/CEO realize the need to evaluate and update our culture and put the cultural change process in place.
Seeing staff members embrace the culture definition was a very rewarding experience. People who work hard and love the organization want to be part of the culture, and for new, as well as existing staff, having a written definition they could believe in was a critical first step. This passion was easy to see transferred from staff to their work in making member experiences more positive.
The benefit of having someone with a marketing background involved at a high level in the culture initiative was critical toward ensuring effective positioning and communication of the culture initiative to staff. The marketing team’s development of an eye-catching culture logo, professional PowerPoint and supporting video, and the culture intranet portal all contributed to a memorable, positive launch, and ongoing reinforcement of our culture’s value.
Culture requires constant care, like anything of value. It is something that must be demonstrated, modeled and believed in by upper management because staff members look for examples to follow.
Having a clearly defined culture that people accept and believe in also makes the workplace much more enjoyable and fun, which then is reflected in the way we treat each other and our members. Ultimately, that forms a great foundation, upon which a business can build to reach its full potential and flourish!
Don Bratt, CSME, is SVP/marketing at Lake Michigan Credit Union, Grand Rapids, Mich. He has an MBA in marketing from Western Michigan University. He earned his Certified Strategic Marketing Executive designation after attending both CUES School of Strategic Marketing™ I and CUES School of Strategic Marketing™ II, and then doing a project, upon which this article is based.