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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Believe it or not, the last thing credit unions should get out of a board planning session is a plan. “We try to educate boards that the process of planning is more important than the plan,” said D. Hilton Associates Executive Vice President John Andrews. “If the board walks in feeling pressured to `just get a plan done’ it becomes more tactical and the board’s best opportunity to think about strategy is missed.” According to Andrews, the preparation before any board planning session is vital to it being productive. He says the worst board planning scenario is if everyone is just opening their packets on the day itself and finding out what is on the agenda for the first time. At Municipal Employees Credit Union of Baltimore, in addition to monthly education and strategic board meetings attended by staff, twice a year board members go on their own retreat locally with a facilitator for a day to discuss the processes currently in place and current focus. According to MECU President/CEO Bert Hash, since the “planning” is a year-long effort by the time everyone meets for the once-a-year joint “strategic retreat” at a Maryland resort everyone has already discussed the strategy, direction, strengths and weakness at length. “Our planning session is almost like a mini day conference,” said Hash. “In addition to a facilitator we have guest speakers to address the bigger picture and then we review where we stand and discuss if our current direction is working or not. So far our retreats have been looking ahead no more than six to nine months so next year we may work on some more long-term goals of our opportunities and challenges.” Experts agree that although many are one or two days in length, successful planning is not to be viewed as just a one-time event and should constantly be worked on, reviewed and revised throughout the year. “Some credit unions feel that they need to have a board planning session just to say that they did it rather than viewing it as an opportunity to come together, set mutual goals and work together to make things happen,” said CUNA Mutual Senior Marketing Consultant DeLania Truly. “It just won’t be productive if everyone has a `let’s get it over with’ attitude. The planning session is not all financial driven it should have a balanced scorecard approach where you also focus on long-term, short-term goals for members, staff and operations.” Andrews adds that many boards also work under the common misperception that if they don’t leave a planning session with a mission statement then it wasn’t a good meeting. “If credit unions can’t walk the talk then don’t waste time crafting a mission statement with a lot of wonderful adjectives,” said Andrews. “If I can take your mission statement and easily replace another credit union’s name with yours then it is too generic and time may be better spent on other matters.” According to Pennsylvania Central Federal Credit Union President/CEO Greg Wagner, with a board comprised of local business people who conduct their own planning sessions it was vital that the CU’s board planning session have an interactive, original format. So for the Harrisburg-based credit union, the mission statement is glossed over or not even a part of the session. “We just didn’t see a lot of good coming out of it and we didn’t want the typical canned processed package of planning session stuff,” said PCFCU President/CEO Greg Wagner. “We wanted to come up with our own program, so we worked with a facilitator and basically told him to throw the old stuff out and work on a format that is specific for our credit union.” Generally sessions are planned a year in advance from where it will be held to topics to discuss. Board members have their agenda packets well in advance and no later than two weeks before the all day eight-hour session. Friday evenings are reserved for a reception with spouses and Saturdays are when the groups get working. Wagner says considering the constantly changing landscape focusing on goals and objectives for the coming year works best. In addition they make sure during the ongoing process the strategic objective is something measurable. Experts say that basically there is no one right solution to planning sessions because they are as diverse as the credit unions themselves. But most agree that board planning sessions should be offsite in a comfortable environment to avoid the e-mail or phone interruptions that might occur in a branch setting and include a facilitator. Experts say there should be an outside facilitator, who not only takes the pressure off the board chair or credit union CEO and protects them from the perception of pushing a personal agenda. It also allows everyone to participate and focus on the business at hand. As the new President/ CEO at University of Tennessee Federal Credit Union, Tom Adelman decided to take a chance and facilitate this year’s board planning session himself. “I know it isn’t the best thing to do but I decided that I wanted to be closer to the planning process, and since we were still working off the old plan and I’m new and the least invested – I realized that if ever there was a time to do it myself then this is the year,” said Adelman. “I’ve had the luxury of working with so many fine planners out there that I had a good understanding of the format process. Before we even held the session earlier in the year we had a “plan-lite” Spring Training for the board.” Adelman says the more education focused “training” was necessary so that the board would be really cognizant of where UTFCU stood financially and to understand how the numbers and statistics directly relate to its future. The combination of education and constant follow-up regarding objectives and direction throughout the summer made for a smoother and more energized planning session. While Adelman says the credit union will have a facilitator for next year’s session, he says it will only be for a few years at a time. “It’s a balancing act – changing facilitators every year won’t work because it doesn’t provide enough time for them to get to know your credit union, and just when they are getting their best ideas they’re gone but when they work with you for too long then their objectivity wears off and they could be just as emotionally invested as everyone else,” said Adelman. Think Decision Strategies International Inc. Director of Non-Profit Practice Franck Schuurmans says depending on the reality of how the credit union is run determines how the planning session should be structured. He says there are three archetypes of ways credit unions run: management drives everything and the board rubber stamps it; the board drives everything and management executes; or the board and management work together. According to Schuurmans before kicking off any strategic planning credit unions should conduct an assumptional analysis. Rather than an inward approach of “what we want to be when we grow up”, credit unions must look at possible worlds they encounter in the marketplace and industry to begin discussing how they can achieve what they want based on real data and information. “After all not everyone can be an astronaut.” [email protected]

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