T40B: Brandon Michaels, to the Industry Born, Focuses on Talent
Wonder what drives Brandon Michaels’ desire to lead meaningful change?
Look no further than his family.
“I try to always do the right thing even if it’s not that popular,” said the president/CEO of Kansas City, Mo.-based $490 million Mazuma Credit Union.
The third-generation credit union CEO joked that he’s been involved with credit unions since the womb.
“I remember being at my grandmother’s credit union when I was two or three years old, and as I got older started doing remedial things to help with loan papers, looking at microfiche, eventually working as a teller,” said the latest Trailblazer 40 Below. “When I was younger I thought there is no way I’m going to do this for a living, how boring. I liked hanging out with my grandmother but hated doing all that loan paperwork and going through microfiche.”
With a love of the ocean, Michaels dreamed of being a marine biologist but learned quickly that the months required at sea wasn’t exactly family friendly. He got a degree in finance, and an internship with the FDIC, which lead to a three year career as a bank examiner.
“It gave me a good overall, well-rounded sense of the financial services industry,” said Michaels. “The travel got tedious and being home only six days a month was not conducive to starting a family. So I looked back on what I grew up with–credit unions. I had this choice to leave the known quantity a stable position with the FDIC or take a chance and go into the private sector. And that’s how I became involved with credit unions again as an adult.”
He added that beyond the excessive travel, what really pushed him to look for something else was that he didn’t feel like he fit in with the FDIC.
“I truly believe that credit unions have it wrong in a lot of ways, and there’s a lot of Kool-Aid being consumed in our industry. It’s one thing for me to say I’ve been involved with credit unions since the womb, but I think differently than most and that’s certainly why I didn’t fit in with the government job,” said Michaels. “Credit unions focus too much on the member and not enough on the team member. While important to the success of the industry, happy members don’t make happy team members. Having a culture that engages the team, lifts them up not tears them down, where they love getting up every day to go to work will deliver better member experiences than putting all our money toward the member experience.”
At Mazuma, Michaels has been relentless on fostering that culture and developing talent that allows the credit union to be one of the best places to work where you can have fun throwing Frisbees but also deliver that exceptional member experience.
“I’m tenacious about culture and talent development because that is the differentiator, not a mobile app or remote-deposit capture,” said Michaels. “It’s not the things we offer because eventually someone else will be doing it faster, sooner, better than us. Our difference is our passion and a prosperous culture is what will make us sustainable in the long term.”
He added that it’s an ongoing effort and he’s been amplifying what’s been a great foundation by having a more targeted focus that is steeped across the organization as a whole.
“Our prior CEO did a noble job in trying to advance the member experience and make Mazuma a fun place to work, so from that standpoint I simply amplified it with a more targeted focus and adding accountability,” said Michaels. “It’s getting to know our team members’ passions, finding out what they are really good at, what they love to do and utilizing that talent and passion to help the organization succeed. It’s about being rigid on the things that matter most like hiring for culture first and skills second. We want people with that desire to learn and improve or the culture degrades over time.”
For Michaels it boils down to communication, constantly selling the vision and explaining or sharing the whys as culture development is a perpetual evolution.
“You have to live that vision yourself because ultimately others look to you to display that leadership,” said Michaels. “When you talk innovation it’s not just the next thing that sells four million apps. Innovation is something process oriented that changes a fundamental way you do business whether in thought or policy. We have an AVP of innovation here who is geared toward thinking differently. We have no bad idea meetings where you can share your ideas no matter how crazy because that specific idea might spark something in someone else’s brain that Mazuma could improve on.”
He said the top challenges facing the credit union industry come from within.
“The majority of credit unions have an inability or a lack of desire to change. We can talk about regulatory burdens, but the reality is that it has always been with us, it’s just different now,” said Michaels. “We also have to think differently about how we can use technology to compete and be more aggressive in capturing new business. As a whole, in general there’s a lack of competitiveness. I think culture is the way to compete, but you can’t just have good culture and not tell people about it. We’ve got to be more diligent in sharing our story.”
Also on Michaels’ expansion of the credit union dialogue wish list is digging deep to identify their value proposition.
“How can you compete if you don’t know what differentiates you or question why you should continue doing what has always been done,” said Michaels. “Why would someone want to work at your credit union? What will make them want to stay versus just coming in for a job? Forget being everything to everyone, what niche market should you focus in on and put resources behind that? Better to fail excellently than have mediocre success.”