While he dreamed when he was younger that he’d be a speechwriter for others, Chad Helminak, CUDE director of REAL Solutions and outreach at the Wisconsin Credit Union League, has found his own voice through service to the credit union industry.
“I may have had an account at my parents' credit union that they opened when I was born, but I never knew what it really meant,” said Helminak. “I got involved with credit unions because of blind luck. I applied for a public relations assistant job at the league seven years ago, and it has been nothing but goodness ever since.”
He added that the good being done by the league and the credit union industry as a whole has not only been inspiring but has him eager to get to work every morning.
“Learning from everything would be how I’d describe my journey so far,” said Helminak. “Through all of the successes and mistakes I’ve experienced,I’ve realized that every situation–whether we perceive it as good or bad–presents us with an opportunity to learn and better ourselves, and I'm grateful for them all.”
Some four years ago, the league launched a young professionals council initially as a way to float initiatives by a younger audience. Involved from the start, Helminak said the drive and passion of young professionals across Wisconsin has evolved into a professional networking and development group that has some 150 members. Likening the league’s Young Professional Network to Marvel Comic’s Tony Stark’s self-sustaining Arc Reactor, Helminak credits the success to its members’ energy and passion.
“Their involvement in CU education and development has caused them to ask questions, creatively brainstorm and look for new ways to grow and promote credit unions,” said Helminak.
He added that industry leaders should look to harness that energy, not fear it given that the average age of a credit union member has continued to hover at 47 years old.
“Our industry has invested a lot of effort into finding effective ways to attract young members, and while there’s been some success, to many, it still feels like an uphill battle. But we’re missing the low-hanging fruit and a question I hope all credit unions would ask themselves this: How can we expect young people to get excited about joining our credit unions when the young people within our own walls aren’t excited to work for credit unions,” said Helminak.
According to the latest Trailblazer 40 Below, any hope for credit unions to experience any significant brand recognition or growth in the marketplace, collectively speaking, will be through the industry’s efforts to become self-aware.
“We need believers in our branches. Our employees–and especially young ones–need to understand who we are, and why we do what we do. Our really good employees are likely searching for that understanding right now, on their own,” he said. “Between the conference rooms and teller lines that message gets lost, but it’s such an important one because it can help create a sense of purpose for employees. It has the ability to make them proud to work for credit unions. In a world of ever-changing communication, word-of-mouth has never lost its meaning and that’s how we earn it, by inviting our young leaders to be a part of our future success.”
In order for this to succeed, credit union leaders should look for ways to proactively channel this energy.
“Their wisdom and experience is invaluable and without it, our next generation of executives will be at an incredible disadvantage when their time comes. It’s clear that there’s plenty of work to be done and through mentoring and thoughtful succession planning, we can begin to share the load as we prepare to eventually pass the torch,” said Helminak. “Plus, having more hands on deck might also free up time for us to explore the areas of innovation and creative messaging our industry longs for.”
He also would like credit unions to take a critical look at routines as they look for new avenues to explore.
“What are we doing just out of the sake of tradition and why?” said Helminak. “Everyone’s time is so limited that just asking why are we still doing something a particular way and exploring options of ways to be more efficient so you have time for things like innovation, matters. If the reason why still resonates after 20, 30 years that’s great if not then why not reconsider and eliminate it or try something different.”
That may mean letting go of the notion that credit unions are a best kept secret is a good thing.
“That’s one commonly held belief that needs to fade away because it implies that we are doing well, and it’s consumers’ fault they don’t know about us. It's totally backward,” said Helminak. “We as an industry need to clue them into our relevance prove it and take sharing our structure one step further to what the benefits of that means for consumers. Historically, most of our growth as an industry happened at a grassroots level when we had none of the marketing we have access to now. We need to realize the importance of collaborative messaging that speaks to consumers and maybe even be able to laugh at ourselves. When you look at the “Got Milk” campaign, they didn’t take themselves too seriously, were flexible with the message and yet it’s had a great impact.”
It’s a concept he has been living as part of the musical duo, The Disclosures. During his spare time, along with Christopher Morris, director of communications at the National Credit Union Foundation, the duo write, record and perform songs related to the credit union industry from history and philosophy to the present day issues. They have found music and comedy as a way to get the credit union message across many different venues.
“My first month in college I grabbed a guitar and taught myself to play. And in 2009, Chris and I met at the DE training found out we both played music and it took off,” said Helminak. “It’s been a new way to flex creativity and to have this incubation tank of sorts for innovation in credit union messaging has been incredible, and we've been able to make more of an impact than we ever could have imagined. We’re working on a financial education album for kids and hope to give then a fun musical way to learn about money.”
To him, innovation has less to do with something new and shiny and more to do with finding ways to improve upon what currently exists whether making it easier, more efficient and/or relevant to consumers’ lives. To that end, he’s found that collaboration helps.
“I’m a big believer in helping others realize goals and dreams,” said Helminak. You want to get an idea off the ground, allow other people to have control over it and involved in that innovation process."
"From a credit perspective, the more people involved, the more creativity and energy you'll have in order to drive it into being realized. That way, everyone has a stake in the game and they want to share those ideas and see them succeed, rather than watching from the sidelines."
As one who tries to live by doing what must be done and doing it well, he has always been a believer in being focused on what’s in front of him.
“Purpose and motivation aren’t things you find under a rock or behind a tree. We create our own purpose and motivation by challenging ourselves to discover and do new things every day of our lives, and help others to do the same,” said Helminak. “So when it’s all said and done, I hope I can say that I never stopped creating.”