Build Solid Boards to Avoid Heartache: Editor/Publisher's Column
"Directors are at once our greatest strength and at once our greatest weakness,” now-retired CUES CEO Fred Johnson told me in his exit interview. Unfortunately, it is uttered far too often and is far too true. Governance is a common topic of conversation, but I’m not confident much is being done to improve it among credit unions boards.
Governance is a frequent subject at conferences, and some really excellent speakers are acquired to discuss the topic. But like so many educational sessions, attendees go home and, as they say in New Jersey, fuhgeddaboudit.
Assessments are essential for the modern board, yet many boards won’t use them. Some don’t know how, some are comfortable with the status quo and some just don’t want the rock the boat. If a credit union is scared to address the quality of the board, a major problem exists. The anticipated results are apparent. Being able to feign ignorance doesn’t resolve the root of the issue.
Credit unions must be careful to select the appropriate board assessment tools for the institution’s needs. This is about the ability of the board to address the credit union’s and members’ needs. It’s not about board politicking or hurting feelings. Everyone wants to be viewed as a nice person, but with board responsibilities and liabilities becoming increasingly defined, it’s individual board member’s assets on the line. If the so-called good directors don’t step up to question the abilities of the board, or individual board members, then those folks are not good board members either.
Assessments are understandably delicate matters. They should be handled with respect and dignity–privately in a one-on-one environment as needed–or with the entire board as warranted. Preserving cooperation among the board members is crucial.
Every director should understand from the outset that the goal is strictly to improve the credit union for the members. The credit union must ensure that the members are continuously educating themselves regarding strategic threats, such as economic circumstances or regulations and how these issues could impact the credit union. So long as the best-interest-of-the-member parameter is established and true, no one can legitimately argue against it.
Assessments are a means to an end, not an end. Goals must be set and measured to improve weaknesses. Start over again each year.
It should also be made clear as board members come on what their responsibilities are. Provide information beyond the dates and times of the board meetings. Inform them what’s expected of them if they are to serve the credit union.
The board recruitment process is also problematic in attracting qualified board members. If your nominating committee is out of touch with the community, it isn’t going to be very good at the job. There are credit union board members that handpick their successors or new board members, which only helps ensure more of the same. Boards cannot arbitrarily determine a certain candidate may not be 'our kind of people.' Not only does this mentality stifle innovation, but it also can contribute to collusion.
Obviously, certain standards must be adhered to but one goal should absolutely be diversity. Diversity in backgrounds, age, gender and ethnicity are important to the success of any business because it provides different viewpoints. Credit union boards must reflect their membership and the expertise necessary to run a credit union. Forty years ago, when many board members began serving, a group of astronauts could run a credit union. There’s no doubt astronauts are brilliant but that does not qualify them to oversee today’s credit union. Be true to your primary or original field of membership but also recognize the weaknesses therein and fortify them with less traditional board nominations. Local entrepreneur-members could provide great insights into running a business, while a high school teacher-turned-stay at home Mom can speak to the financial issues of motherhood and what young adults are thinking and doing. Strategically recruiting solid board members will save future heartache.
Perhaps having the option to pay board members a reasonable stipend would help grab the attention of more and better candidates for the board. For those who invest the necessary time for oversight and continuous learning, it’s certainly justified. Washington State, which is heavily banked, is exploring the possibility. In reality, it’s no different than sending board members to an educational conference to Palm Springs or to Puerto Rico. Directly paying stipends to keep up to date is just more transparent.