NEW YORK — Bob Dylan was here in spirit if not in person.

The world renowned folk singer’s legendary song “The Times They Are a-Changin’” became an anthem for the transformation-filled 1960s. The spirit of the song filled many of the sessions at CUNA’s America’s Credit Union Conference and Expo as attendees figured out ways to deal with the economic, political and technological changes the country is facing. CUNA said 1,600 people looking to learn to adapt to change attended the event, the most since its 1997 conference.

NCUA President/CEO Dan Mica said in his opening remarks that while it is important to value tradition, it is risky to spend too much time trying to preserve the past.

He cited the example of the award-winning New York restaurant Caf?(C) Des Artistes, where he had dined the night before as a business that still respects its past but changes with the times.

“Traditions are often just a form of conspiracy to keep the future from happening,” Mica read from
the restaurant’s menu that he was given by the maitre d’h??tel.

The restaurant, famous for its fine French food and paintings of nudes, has been in business since 1917. But Mica noted that George Lang, a consultant and one-time Hungarian refugee. took it to the next level. Lang saw that the restaurant was a fine establishment that needed updating, so he helped revamp the menu and made it one of the most desirable eating establishments in a city known for having many of them.

Mica alluded to Dylan’s words–making a point not to sing them–as he returned to the change theme throughout his remarks. (CUNA’s president did not, however, mention the song’s connection to the financial services industry. Dylan’s song, which appeared on an album of the same name in 1964, was used in a 1994 advertising campaign by the Bank of Montreal.)

Other speakers brought the concept of change to a more practical level.

During a session on innovation, author and consultant Scott Berkun said the No. 1 idea killer in most organizations is the statement “we don’t do that here.” Berkun said managers who have that reaction too often stifle innovation and can cause companies to reject ideas that will help them adapt to changes in the economy and marketplace.

Mica said the impact of much of the political change in Washington–which he predicted will include larger Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress–is far from clear. He noted that even lawmakers who are not huge fans of credit unions have said they should do more to help people since the credit unions “are the certified white hats in the financial services industry.” But he warned that those warm feelings won’t necessarily translate into giving credit unions additional regulatory relief.

Overall, he said the next few years will see more changes in the credit union industry than we’ve ever seen before.

Mica noted that there are forces out there that want to split up credit unions and are praying for their demise. To avoid that from happening and grow their operations, credit unions have to “create the change, embrace the change and lead the change.”

He said those in the credit union movement trying to fight for the status quo will lose.

Author and leadership expert Steve Farber said executives who have successfully led company transformations have done so by demonstrating vision and having worthwhile and achievable goals.

Once you figure out how you need to change organizations, make sure everyone you work with is passionate about it and can see the bigger picture.

He cited a former executive of Gillette who said they do more than just sell shavers but had the attitude that “we own the face.”

The enthusiasm of employees who are excited about something rubs off on their colleagues and customers, Farber noted.

–cmarx@cutimes.com