Leadership development, or the gap in mid-level talent, is a top three risk for many credit unions. Mid-level talent is critical to recognizing and responding to the challenges that emerge in a continually shifting business landscape, and organizations cannot keep pace solely through top-down directives. Credit union executives need to establish a foundation steeped in learning, empowerment, and intentional practice to implement relevant business strategies.

Toward that end, effective leadership development should address the whole person, using holistic learning to transform leadership potential into sustainable, responsive performance.

But strategic execution is difficult to teach. Businesses expect leadership abilities to spring from one-off training offered in day-long workshops, which are often minimally impactful and piecemeal. In the worst cases, executives rely on hope as a strategy, crossing their fingers that their leadership talent bench will gain the right experience and skills as a result of project work.

Shortchanging leadership development squanders their greatest business asset: their people. The long-term strategic opportunity lies in developing mid-level talent as champions and protagonists of change.

Focusing on Development Program Design

The design of a leadership development program needs to build foundational competencies, such as strategic and critical thinking, for mid-level talent whose current and future roles are central to solving problems and realizing opportunities. Clarity of roles and contributions, and the certainty of accountabilities, must be clearly communicated, embraced, and enacted for the organization to run on all cylinders, so it can ultimately deliver on its promises and market needs.

The most robust and needed leadership development programs focus on facilitating a higher level of strategic thinking and execution within organizations. A key step in that direction is aligning end-all/be-all priorities through the leadership and governing ranks. This is where the board, management, and leadership teams endorse a thoroughly vetted Organizing Principle (OP) that speaks to the long-term impact the company desires to have in the market. This OP transcends quarterly or short-term concerns to underscore the organization's commitment that will govern all strategies, tactics, and measures of success, including leadership development initiatives.

Strategic execution is elevated when leadership ranks can frame the allocation of precious resources (capital, labor, etc.) within the OP. Strategic execution is where the credit union's priorities—often members' priorities subjugate short-term individual goals. Alignment on the organization's collective priorities supersedes short-term career advancement because people commit to all that the OP encompasses and know that if they do "the right thing," they will be recognized appropriately.

Delivering on Organizing Principles

For organizations to reach a high level of staff engagement in their OP, their leaders need the skills to communicate opportunities, concerns, and accountabilities effectively. However, doing this effectively stands in opposition to an inspirational poster in a breakroom as strategic execution isn't a final destination or static state of being. It's a momentary phenomenon that is attained when leaders have the insight, patience, and commitment to engage in the right (and sometimes hard) conversations in an objective, dignified manner.

Other leadership attributes that support strategic execution are the competencies to envision new possibilities and to frame or "sell" those ideas in a manner that compels colleagues to change their priorities and behaviors. Leaders must also be open to, and willing to solicit, new ideas that may be better than their own; reinforcing ego is not part of the formula.

High-performing organizations do not leave the development of these leadership competencies to chance. A proactive commitment to nurturing these abilities in mid-level talent helps translate strategic goals to strategic execution. Done right, this process takes on another challenge alluded to previously: the vacuum of leadership that retirement and transitions will create if not anticipated and addressed. Executives can be promoted internally. Filling the CEO role may no longer need to be the result of a lengthy external search but rather elevated from within.

Executive and CEO positions need not be filled by outside talent. Executives are responsible for grooming future leaders across business units. An investment in succession planning and leadership development demonstrates to talented staff that their career advancement is an organizational priority.


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