North Star Have a purpose that holds steady, just like the North Star.

A quick Google search of banks and credit unions in my area revealed 10 within just a three-mile radius of my house. That’s a lot of options in a small area.

To differentiate your credit union, it’s important to find your why or purpose. It can be a tough task in the highly regulated and scrutinized financial industry, where technology is dynamic and things are constantly changing.

When everything is in perpetual movement, it’s important to have one centralized purpose to reference so employees always know what they’re working toward. Explorers once used the North Star as a navigation point because it holds steady in the same spot while the other stars rotate around it. The same dynamic should exist between your credit union and its purpose. Your purpose should hold constant and remain at the center of all decisions, regardless of any changes within your organization.

When determining a mission or purpose, it’s vital to start with the why, according to John L. Bissell, president/CEO of the $1.2 billion Greylock Federal Credit Union in Pittsfield, Mass. “Our employees want to work in a place that inspires them, and our members appreciate that we are a values-driven organization. Greylock’s purpose is embodied by our mission, vision and values, and provides the foundation for all decision making within the organization. These strong footings provide the motivation and guiding principles for actions across all business units,” Bissell emphasized.

Establishing Greylock’s brand and defining its purpose was a team effort. “Greylock embarked on a board retreat in 2016 where the new vision statement was developed. This led more recently to a substantial rebranding process involving organization-wide reflection and consensus building activities. The results of this reflection allowed us to put into words our long-held philosophy and culture of community empowerment. We adopted a new tagline, ‘Opportunity Grows Here,’ and began to expand our commitment to financial inclusion,” Bissell said.

If you do have a defined purpose, it’s important to maintain it by hiring people who align with your team and culture. Gayle M. Evans, chief human resources officer at the $1.1 billion Unitus Community Credit Union in Portland, Ore., said her credit union is very intentional about culture and its leaders work hard to maintain it. She said they make a concerted effort to make their brand known within the community so the credit union is more likely to attract people who align with its culture.

“When people apply to us, we ask them, ‘Why are you interested in Unitus, not just, ‘Why are you interested in this job?’ and often they say, ‘I saw you involved in the community and I want to be a part of that … then we ask behavior based questions like, ‘When was the last time you provided exceptional member service?’ We make sure we’re asking cultural questions, in addition to the job qualifications questions,” Evans said.

When people are working toward a purpose, they’re often times more committed and willing to work harder.

“People who are purpose driven will work with blood, sweat and tears to accomplish a goal, task or strategy. If I’m going to be in this really crazy, changing, hyper-competitive market, I want to have a team that’s rallied around a purpose or cause, versus just treating it like a job,” Scott Butterfield, principal of Your Credit Union Partner, PLLC, said.

So, can you define your team or credit union’s purpose, or North Star? What is the one thing that holds constant? Can employees easily state what their purpose or reason is for existing? If the answer to these questions is no, perhaps managers need to help employees more clearly define their purpose through fact-finding conversations within their teams.

Butterfield, who also serves as an advisor for credit unions, said he likes to begin strategic conversations with a review of the credit union’s mission, vision and values.

In a recent article he wrote called “Three Conversations Worth Having with your Team,” Butterfield recommended managers ask the following three questions if your team is suffering from an identity crisis and needs to define its “why”:

  • What makes you proud?
  • What was the specific contribution that made you proud?
  • What did the contribution allow the member or community to go on to do or be?

After these conversations, managers often see common threads where they’re able to clearly identify what motivates team members, thus making it easier to define a team’s purpose.

“Clearer themes emerge when management gathers employee and member experiences. Breaking down these experiences tap into what really motivates the team, and it lays a foundation to strengthen the credit union’s brand and establish a firm foundation on which the credit union exists,” Butterfield said.

When you have a purpose, or a North Star, you’ll always know where you’re going. So what’s your credit union’s purpose? How does employee engagement factor into its purpose? Send me your stories for possible inclusion in an upcoming feature article at the email below.

Tahira Hayes

Tahira Hayes is a correspondent-at-large for CU Times. She can be reached at