Achieving Wedded Bliss

April 2015: Vol 38 No 4
by Bryn C. Conway

Making members happy after a merger.

feet of bride and groomMergers are a significant undertaking for most credit unions. If you consider the first year after a merger is like a newly married couple and their families learning to live together, you will be better prepared to ensure that everyone feels comfortable in their new roles.

Whereas before the merger you may have been thinking and acting as a bachelor, now you will ensure domestic bliss if you embrace that you will be doing everything as a couple. This means you will need to make sure that everyone from your new spouse to your parents understands your decisions, feels heard and valued, and can articulate “how” and “why” your credit union is working toward its new envisioned future.

Making The Honeymoon Last Forever: Setting a Foundation for the First-Year

You are back from your honeymoon, and you have a killer tan and a wonderful spouse who is making all your friends a bit envious. Now, you and your new life-mate need to get down to the business of combining households, learning to live as couple and finding ways to ensure your wedded bliss can last. Mergers, just like marriages, are work and it takes serious effort to make them fulfilling for a lifetime.

Let’s face it: Your life is never going to be quite the same. You have taken the plunge and, honestly, neither you nor your partner may be on your best behavior anymore. You wake up in the morning and the glasses are in a different cabinet, she discovers he likes his shirts done a certain way and he learns she is going nuts over his “to-be-filed” pile in the office.

It’s OK! You are going to get through this. What your friends, family, and the entire universe forgot to tell you about marriage, and they certainly didn’t tell you about mergers, is the first year is the hardest. The first year sets the foundation for “forever.”

As a leader in a newly merged CU, you need to focus on how you interact with your new and existing members so you can help them find fulfillment and happiness in this new life you have undertaken together. Your executive team and the board need to discuss and affirm your CU’s values, vision and mission to help members and employees feel comfortable and engaged with their new CU.

Depending on the scope of your merger, this could be only a small adjustment or a major re-tool. Communication is key during the first year and the old adage of “actions speak louder than words” has never been more relevant. Your members and employees will believe your actions. So focus on actions first, with your words supporting and clarifying along the way. 

These four actions can lay the groundwork for success during the first year post-merger:

Redecorate. Painting a room, hanging pictures that capture who you are as a couple and rearranging furniture to help welcome guests are ways to make your house feel like a home. You need to do the same things in your CU facilities as part of your merger. 

Rebrand your newly acquired branches quickly after the merger is final. You might want to add touches to your existing offices as well to reflect the joining of your two organizations. Create a purposeful, step-by-step process to remove the logos, promotions and other items of the old credit unions from your facilities and remote channels.

Get all your employees and volunteers new logo wear, paint your branches and update your online and telephone banking menus.

Set a clear timetable, starting in the months leading up to the merger and finishing shortly after the merger is complete. Employees and members need to recognize there is a change, yet still feel at home when they interact with their credit union. Enhancing their physical and remote environments will help them better understand and accept the envisioned future of your combined organization.

Discover a better way. This is often the hardest lesson to learn for newlywed couples and for the executives, volunteers and employees of a newly merged CU. Tasks as simple as loading a dishwasher can start a heated debate with a newlywed couple. Should the knives and forks be loaded with the sharp end up or down?

Discovering a better way means respecting differences and patiently working through the merits of each side to find a solution (yes, you will need to decide sharp end up or down). Not allowing for thoughtful discussions regarding these seemingly mundane issues can create a negative tone. If you assume everything will be done your way as the surviving credit union, you will create the feeling of “us” vs. “them.”

Take the time to talk through policies, procedures and practices that are different. A good rule to follow in the first year after a merger is: Bring it up now, discuss it and respectfully decide what “our” way is going to be moving forward and implement it together.

Fight fair. It’s inevitable: You and your spouse are having a wonderful day and out of the blue someone says or does something, and now you are smack dab in the middle of a hurt and blame filled fight.

This happens in board rooms and branches as well. As a leader in your credit union, it is your job to fix it and it doesn’t matter who started it or who said what.

Resist the urge to just pragmatically solve the problem. Start with the emotions first. Recognize that everyone is feeling a bit uncomfortable and unsure because of the merger. If your board members are disagreeing on the next steps for your organization, your branch staff can’t decide on the proper way to set up internal controls, or your loan officers don’t see eye-to-eye on credit policy, as a leader, you can help by diffusing the emotions first.

Try asking the parties involved to table the topic briefly while you discuss something that will remind everyone why they decided to join in the first place. Promise to return to the topic, and when you do, start with the extremes of what are the worst and best outcomes if something is done a certain way. This gives perspective and makes the issue appear smaller and easier to solve.

Disagreement, discussion and discourse can be healthy in marriages and business relationships alike, provided everyone feels heard and valued. Years from now, no one will remember the issue you discussed, but they will remember how you made them feel as you helped find a solution.

Continue courting. You signed on the dotted line, she changed her name and you ordered the new address labels. You declared your commitment in front of your members and volunteers and filed the paperwork with NCUA. Don’t let your day-to-day routines extinguish your spark.

So host parties, plan date nights, celebrate small anniversaries. Use your annual meeting and membership appreciation days to keep familiarizing members and employees with each other. Move branch employees to different locations so they can get to know other team members. Host training that doubles as a mixer for employees, and make it fun.

Just as married couples have date nights to remember and celebrate why they chose to be together in the first place, you need to remind your employees and members of the value of your merger. Celebrate each other, learn together and work together.

Living Happily Ever After: Build a Culture of Engagement

Now that you have established the ground rules for forever, you need to look beyond the immediate needs and build an organizational culture that will allow your volunteers, members and employees to thrive for years to come.

Here are three notions for living happily ever after and developing an engaging organizational culture:

Keep your good humor. Marriage and mergers are serious business, but don’t let your sense of responsibility or desire to succeed overshadow how a smile, a laugh and a little play can make your spouse, or your employees and members, feel they are part of something great.

Try to remember as you go into each interaction that you are working with good people who have the best of intentions. When tempers flare, help people see the glass as half full and keep their good humor.  Show them that they can believe in you and your CU. Keeping things positive, even in the most difficult and stressful situations, makes people want to help and work with you and each other to succeed. There may be that crazy aunt who you will never be able to please, but don’t let her get to you. Maintain your grace and charm and everyone else will be impressed with your unflappable leadership.

Create new traditions. Just as a newly married couple needs to decide how to celebrate holidays, so does your CU. As a bachelor, you may have always gone skiing during the winter holidays, but your spouse attended worship service and cooked a traditional meal with family. Spend the time to learn what is important to your partner CU. Ask questions of long-time employees and members. How does the CU celebrate its annual meeting? Do employee birthdays get acknowledged in certain ways? Are long-time directors honored and, if so, how? Is it time for a director emeritus policy? Work with this knowledge to define “our” traditions for the future. Compromise and build consensus. Define what is important in your new CU’s organizational culture, and then put forth new traditions and ways of doing things that will be “our” way of doing things in the future.

Write “our” story. Celebrate your past but focus more on your future. You had a life before your new spouse. One filled with experiences, failures and successes that made you the person they fell in love with and the person you are today. Your CUs each have histories and experiences as well. Even though you are now merged, you can still acknowledge past achievements.

However, to have a happy future, you need to focus on your new life together not on your past. As you document your “About Us” page on your website or annual report, write “our” story which includes your blended history. Begin writing it as you work toward the combining of your CUs. Include how you met, why you decided to merge and what made each CU a good fit for one another. The first year you will want to include more about the past. In subsequent years, you will find the past becomes less and less important as you focus more on the communities you serve and what you want for your CU today and tomorrow.

Mergers are full of delight, potential and—there is no doubt about it—hard work! However, when you are committed to have a great one, it’s evident to you, your partner and everyone around you. Build and develop your new CU just as you would your marriage, and your members and employees will stay committed to you for a lifetime.

Bryn C. Conway, CUDE, principal of BC Consulting, LLC, is based in the Washington, D.C., area, is a lover of all things “credit union” and has helped build a strong organizational culture after a merger.