ST. PAUL, Minn. – At Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union, talk is cheap. For the past five years the $780 million credit union has been developing an environment based on passion and accountability with a focus on building relationships and leaders. "It sounds easy but it is harder to do because most organizations either don't have the managerial courage, board support or vision to pull it off," said Affinity Plus FCU President/CEO Kyle Markland. "You have to be willing to make hard decisions on hiring and periodically slay the `sacred cow' of offering products to turn into an externally focused organization. It means not putting members into a headlock and dragging them through policy and procedure -but focusing on being easy to do business with from a member perspective." It all begins with hiring the right people for positions not based on specific skill sets but rather passion and potential-something that applied even to Markland. "Of all the candidates interviewed Kyle was the least experienced, but he was exactly what we were looking for-someone with raw capability, drive, energy and ambition to move the credit union forward," said Board Chairman Michael Hoey. The selective, thorough hiring process begins with managers making three points of contact with potential candidates: first on the phone, then in person to discuss culture and the organization and finally, if all goes well, the candidate completes a 200-plus question profile survey. "Our focus is on the right fit, and that means going beyond the typical dry interview process of throwing questions back and forth like a tennis match but having a real conversation and talking about culture, past experiences and finding out what excites someone at the end of the day," said Affinity Plus FCU HR Director Dawn Mansergh. "We use the profile as a tool to develop teams and coach employees it is not meant to be intimidating but it also demonstrates that we are really serious about finding someone who is a great fit for the organization." Once candidates pass the relationship building process they move onto orientation where they continue to be assessed. According to Mansergh, less than 2% are offered permanent positions. Employee compensation is competitive with an Affinity Plus FCU twist – instead of salary grades ranging from one to five, the range is for such behaviors as passion, zeal, engagement and enthusiasm. "Sometimes people move for the wrong reasons because they feel they should be at a specific pay rate not necessarily because they are interested in that position," said Mansergh. " So we put the value back on the people and what they bring to the organization." The majority of the human resource budget goes to employee benefits including no cost medical/dental, 401(k) contributions and tuition reimbursement. According to Mansergh, since concentrating on recruiting passionate leaders and creating a truly supportive environment, motivating employees is almost a non-issue. " Every employee knows that we are driven by making members' lives better through everyday greatness," said APFCU Relationship Management/Call Center Director Sarah Sackett. "With so many high performers the management style here is to essentially explain what outcome is expected and then just let them define how they are going to make it happen. Not only is the challenge great but more importantly we feel and know that there is a real trust and confidence in us." Agreeing to be a part of this organization is not for everyone. Throughout the organization employees are asked to answer tough questions such as "do you want to be here" and "do you think you are in the right position?" "It all goes back to honesty and being real. Sometimes people have to be let go or they recognize it isn't the right fit and they leave on their own," said Sackett. "Everyday in this organization our expectations increase, and no matter how far we come there is never an end so we are always reaching. No matter who you are, if you see something you don't like, your accountability is to make things better." For example, in the call center, hold time and evaluation sheets have been thrown away and the focus is on quality not quantity. "So when someone calls into our environment we take care to provide solutions and advice," said Sackett. "Forget about just giving rates and hanging up, we encourage a dialogue with members so if one member wants to talk for 10 minutes then fine. We make it clear that your accountability is to the member so evaluation is not about someone lurking over you on the phone or a paper in your file but it is about conversation and communicating with each other." According to Markland "walking the talk" comes from trust. "What we are doing here is not an initiative or a campaign but an ingrained culture that is rigorous, exacting and demanding," said Markland. "But when you have employees that want to be challenged and want to make a difference for members and each other then you don't need the `management book of the day' approach. If we take care of our members and build relationships the financial side will take care of itself." Markland may be on to something – Affinity Plus FCU's annual loan production has grown from $391 million in 2001 to $465 million in 2002, and the credit union is the seventh largest auto lender in Minnesota. In addition, for the third consecutive year the Business Journal has named Affinity Plus FCU one of the Top 25 Residential Mortgage Companies and it is the primary financial community sponsor of Major League Baseball's Minnesota Twins. Markland says none of these accomplishments would be possible without the support of the board. "I think one of the most important things we as a Board can do is to set the strategic direction of the organization, but then have a hands-off approach in management's day-to-day operations and decisions" said Hoey. "It boils down to having strong trust in the executive staff to achieve the desired outcome." According to Hoey the board of nine is constantly evaluating its weaknesses and actively recruits new directors to fill the voids of that year. "I think one of the reasons why we may be effective as a board is that we wear the hat of our members, not our own hat," said Hoey. "So we check the egos and personal agendas at the door, and we believe that the ultimate contribution we can make to the board and the organization is when we can replace ourselves with new directors who will have the capabilities to move the credit union further toward our vision." [email protected]

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