Last year I received a call from “Jim” the board president of a credit union. He was reaching out to me because his credit union was in dire straits and the Board of Directors desperately needed someone to help them set things right.

“We are under scrutiny from federal regulators, recently terminated our CEO, and elevated our CFO to interim CEO”, he lamented. Amidst all this there was staff turnover and those staff that remained were disengaged.

The results of all this were low member satisfaction, falling membership numbers, and an inability for the credit union to meet even the basic financial needs of its members. All in all: a recipe for disaster.

When Jim reached out to me the concern in his voice was quite clear: In addition to being board president he was also a member of the credit union. “I hate to see what is happening to this wonderful institution”, he continued. And the remainder of the board shared his concern.

“We need your help, Ed.  If not, the credit union may go under.”  He knew they had to make some quick assessments to figure out how to turn the tide in their favor. And that’s where I came in.

We decided the first step would be to assess the entire operation, talk to the employees to find out their concerns, determine if the right people were in the right positions, and review all the organizational processes.

After digging into this for a few weeks it became awfully clear to me what the challenges were:

  • There were very few documented processes for running the business
  • Employee disengagement was so severe that many told me that they were embarrassed to tell their friends where they worked. One key employee went so far as to say, “If I met you at party, I would never tell you I worked here.” Yikes!
  • We also found that there was very little respect for the interim CEO. She was viewed as being standoffish, always in her office and only focused on fixing the regulatory issues facing the credit union. She was unable to affectively delegate to her team which resulted in her feeling frustrated, overworked, and burned out. “Steph just likes to be in her office, doing her thing” one of the tellers told me.

What this organization really needed was to have a leader who could effectively get them through the regulatory nightmare they were facing, reestablish an engaged workforce, and put in place the processes that would allow the credit union to deliver on its service promise to its members.

Getting those things in place would put the organization back on track to growing its membership base and being able to offer a full line of financial services to its membership.

After my assessment I recommended that the board realign several people in the workforce to better match their skill sets with the jobs that needed completed. Jose, head teller, and Becky, IT Specialist, were underutilized.  Both had expressed an interest in taking on additional responsibilities but were not given the opportunity.

Furthermore, I questioned whether the interim CEO could continue to function in that role, and we had long discussions about whether she should be dismissed from the organization. The board repeatedly told me, “We like her and think she can do the job; she just needs guidance.”

During those discussions, I realized that while she had the potential to turn the ship around and turn herself around, the question is would she be willing to do so?

The board really wanted to give her the opportunity to shine, so after we realigned the staff and after we put in place some basic processes for running the organization, I began to coach the interim CEO.

At first Steph was hesitant, almost hostile. “You recommended to the board that I be let go if I don’t improve.  How can I trust you?” she challenged me.

“Simple.” I replied “It is not in my best interests for you to fail either.  We both have the same goal.”

Each month we focused on a different skill set that would be important to her success. First, we started working on her relationship skills: her ability to connect with her staff and build meaningful relationships with them so that she could better serve them as a leader. She spent time with each of her people over lunches or coffees, getting to know their needs and desires, as well as ideas for how to improve the organization.

Next, we built on that relationship piece by giving her the skills needed to delegate effectively to her staff. Moving things off her plate to theirs not only would challenge her staff to rise to the occasion and grow but freed her up to tackle the organization’s most pressing issues. For Jose and Becky, this was a godsend!  They had been craving the learning opportunity and now Steph was ready to give it to them.

That accomplished, we began working on her attitude, the negative outlook she had about her abilities and her role in the organization. I helped her see how her attitude would be contagious through the organization and that even on the tough days it would be important for her to put a positive spin on things. You see, Steph felt like she had to consistently “prove herself”.

“I don’t have a college degree; these employees won’t fully respect me without it,” she had admitted to fearing in one particularly honest conversation early on in our work together.

But what she learned through our sessions, and her interpersonal work with the other staff members, was that her people just needed to know she cared.  They knew she had solid banking knowledge and they didn’t care about her lack of formal education.

Finally, we tied all three of these together and helped her work on her leadership presentation. How she presented herself to her staff, the members, and the board of directors became a critical turning point in her transformation.

Nearing the end of our time together she said, “Ed, I feel so much more confident now.  I trust my team, and they know I have their backs.”

I checked in with her a few months back and chatted with the board president. And I was amazed at what I heard.

Not only was staff turnover down but engagement amongst the staff was way up, with many members of the team stepping into new roles willingly and accepting positions of greater responsibility. There was newfound respect for the interim CEO and the board had decided to make her CEO! Membership was growing and the regulatory issues that had been facing the organization had been resolved.

The processes I helped put in place allowed them to run much more efficiently, freeing employees up to do work that mattered and allowing the organization to better serve its membership.

The board members were thrilled with the outcome.

“Ed, we can’t thank you enough” Jim told me on the phone. “It’s like a new place when I walk into the main branch now.  People are smiling and Steph is now happy to see me.”

Their organization is now not only on solid ground again, but they are actively looking for land on which they can build a new corporate office! Employee satisfaction and engagement with the organization is back where it needs to be and is evidenced in their ability to serve the membership.

So, what are the lessons learned here?

The obvious one for me is that we can only be successful through our people. Too often business owners, executives, and boards of directors’ focus on the wrong things when there are problems in the workplace.

This board was smart, they realized that the problems could all be resolved through resolving the people issues that were present. I was happy to help them and be a part of the solution.

You see, any good business strategist knows that the way to success is paved through people, if we do not focus on the people element, no matter how well thought out our strategy, no matter how solid our processes are, no matter how great a product or service we’re offering, we’re bound to fail.

If your business is struggling to meet its goals, if you’re finding challenges in meeting the needs of your customers, if employee engagement seems to be waning, or if you’re failing to get the results you want and need for your business it’s time for you and I to talk.