Succession Planning Critical for Credit Unions

When Wayne Langei first took the helm at WECU in 1973, the credit union had three employees and a million dollars in assets. When his retirement was announced on August 22, WECU had over a $1 billion in assets and employed 330 people.

“As one considers the impact of the credit union to the members and community during Wayne’s tenure, it’s amazing,” said Troy Stang, president and CEO of the Northwest Credit Union Association. When planning for Langei’s retirement and choosing a new CEO, Stang explained, the WECU board faced an entirely different challenge than they had 41 years earlier when they hired Langei.

“The recruitment exercise for any credit union today is not the same scope as 40 years ago,” said Stang. Complexities in management, in technology, in marketing, and in the regulatory environment far exceed what they faced in the ‘70s, explained Stang. The range and depth of knowledge required for high-level executive roles in today’s credit unions makes finding qualified candidates difficult.

And now, in an economy picking up steam after the recession, competition to attract and retain talent in the financial sector is growing. “There’s an added benefit in the Northwest,” said Stang, “because it’s such a great place to call home.” But the question of compensation can be a challenge, especially for credit unions that have not had to recruit top executives for a while.

“When a board searches the marketplace for top talent, there can often time be sticker shock,” said Stang.

Stang said that some boards do regular market assessments of competitive compensation packages and make annual adjustments accordingly. “There are a lot of resources in the marketplace to help boards get this information,” Stang said.

Another big question is where credit unions find top talent, said Stang. He said that, according to research conducted by the Association’s Future Leaders Task Force, 51% of the Northwest credit union senior level positions are being filled with candidates from outside the credit union world. Stang challenged, “What is behind this number? What’s keeping us from developing and placing our own top leaders?”

The Future Leaders Task Force has taken the first step towards answering these questions, and the findings are available to members of the Association.

WECU’s Succession Solution

In the same release that announced Langei’s retirement, WECU introduced Jennifer Kutcher as his successor. The promotion of Kutcher, who at the time was senior vice president and chief lending officer at the credit union, was the culmination of six years of planning and preparation by the WECU board.

Realizing the complexity of the challenge before them, the board decided to hire consultant Gene O’Rourke, founder and managing director of O’Rourke and Associates, a firm that specializes in recruiting for credit unions, to help them craft their succession plan and process.

The board identified three internal candidates for the CEO role, and put them through a rigorous, multi-year training regimen.

“WECU’s board of directors recognized early on that it would be important to develop internal talent as a part of the succession planning process,” said Phil Isle, WECU’s board chair. “As a part of the training candidates rotated between CFO, COO and CLO positions every two years, further developing important CEO competencies. Candidates also worked on a number of case studies which they presented to the board, and were given opportunities to sit as ‘acting CEO’ throughout the training process.”

Kutcher said that this process not only instilled in her the necessary skills and confidence to take on the CEO role, but it instilled in the three candidates a sense of common purpose. “The experience brought the three of us closer as an executive team and fostered a greater sense of teamwork and collaboration in our leadership decisions,” said Kutcher. “The rotation process also strengthened the management team, as we focused on developing more depth and expertise in all areas of the organization.”

Langei, for his part, both commended the success of the plan and pointed out that, if he could do it again, he would have started the process earlier. “The two year rotation process for the CFO, CLO and COO worked very well,” he said. “This provided an excellent background for the executive team.”

He continued, “If I had thought ahead more than six years, I would have included the CIO responsibilities in the rotation process.” He also said that the rotation process requires an excellent team in each department to facilitate training of each candidate as they rotate through.

Overall, Langei sees the process as a success. “I believe the training process allowed me to retire knowing that WECU will continue to be successful. WECU has a fantastic executive team as a result of this process.”

Learn More at Amplify

Strategic Succession Consultant Deedee Myers says that the market for talent has shifted dramatically in the last 12 months. “It’s gone from an employer market, where employers could pick and choose the best talent, to a market where employees have multiple opportunities to consider,” she said.

In order to attract and retain high performers, she continued, credit unions have to be high-performing organizations, with progressive talent management strategies that include development and succession opportunities. “We need to be the number one choice,” said Myers, who will share her succession planning methodology at Amplify Convention next month.

Succession, she said, begins long before an executive announces their retirement plans. “It’s a paradigm shift around how we look at organizations and their roles.”

Myers advocates a talent management strategy that looks beyond the résumé and job description, defining how each role adds value to the strategic plan, how an employee knows he’s successful, what kind of personal mastery is involved, and how to utilize and develop emotional intelligence. This, she said, combined with a strategy to understand employees’ personalities and support their development, gives people meaning in their work and excitement for the future.

“You define the role in the future and then you find out who is interested in the role, and you create a personal plan for them to take on the necessary skills,” she said. “The biggest challenge right now,” said Myers, “is how to go from the ‘hunker down’ thinking of the recession to more futuristic, innovative and creative thinking.”

Last week, she said, a client of hers who is a CEO told her, “I’m looking at the roles in my organization in a more provocative and deeper way than I ever have. Now I’m going to see where my organization can really go.”

Myers’ Amplify session is scheduled for Wednesday, October 8 at 2 p.m. She will also conduct a chapter leadership workshop on Tuesday, October 7.

Editor’s note: Amplify Convention is happening October 7-9 in Spokane. Registration is open online. A full schedule of speaker presentations, breakout sessions and Strategic Link trade show hours are posted as well. 

Questions about this story? Contact James Pearson: 206.340.4790, jpearson@nwcua.org.

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