Strategic Planning Is More Than A Fall Weekend

Taking time throughout the year to discuss the credit union’s strategic direction will help leaders address changes to the landscape as they occur.

With fall’s arrival, credit union strategic planning season is in full swing. For some, strategic planning meetings are a necessary event that won’t significantly impact the credit union’s plans. They typically include updates by senior executives regarding the credit union’s progress and plans going forward, followed by input from the board on key issues.

This is not true strategic planning. It’s business planning for the coming year.

There is nothing wrong with business planning. It is an important part of most credit unions’ annual cycle. But strategic planning is different and difficult. It deals with uncertainties. Strategic planning is not focused solely on how the credit union is going to move forward. It also addresses what the credit union is moving toward and why those outcomes are important.


The notion that a strategic plan locks an organization into specific actions, creating the possibility of missing new opportunities or failing to address new challenges, is misguided. Today’s financial services landscape is continually changing. Economic shifts influence members’ lives and behaviors; interest rate changes lead to changes in consumer borrowing and saving; moves by traditional competitors intensify competition in certain product segments or markets; and moves by emerging competitors cause disruptions that were not on the radar previously. These variables are exactly why strategic planning is important.

Strategic planning creates a critical framework for a credit union to look to when determining how to respond to changes in the landscape. It doesn’t direct a specific action it’s not a roadmap but instead reminds the organization of the long-term objectives it wants to accomplish.

Key Questions To Shape Strategic Direction

Credit union executives reach their positions because of their expertise and years of experience dealing with challenges and pursuing opportunities. Their expertise often in specific areas such as operations, lending, marketing, or finance is essential for organizational success. Strategic planning, however, requires leaders to think beyond individual departments and step outside of their day-to-day challenges to assume the perspective of the organization and its stakeholders.

To shape the strategic direction of the organization, leaders must ask a few key questions, chief among them: What do we want to accomplish for our members, community, and employees?

The answer to that question should be inspiring and ambitious.

At a recent planning meeting I facilitated, an executive proposed that the credit union be an economic development engine for its community. That statement changed the tone of the discussion and led the team to think about the credit union in much different terms.

The discussion no longer revolved around the role of the branch or the technology budget. Instead, the team talked about having employees who are deeply engaged with the community; forming partnerships with players in business, government, and the non-profit space; and focusing efforts to support strong education systems, vibrant businesses, and a healthy community. These are all foundational components for what the team believed made an attractive place for people to live.

As they discuss objectives, leaders also need to ask: Why are these objectives most important to us? This question gets to the core of a credit union’s purpose, its reason for being.

In the case of the credit union above, its reasoning was both simple and profound: Operating in a vibrant community will provide more opportunities for success. Although that might appear self-serving at first, the key is that it starts with an outside perspective, that of the credit union’s community and members.

As credit unions wrestle with their objectives and purpose, their stakeholders must always be part of the discussion. A credit union’s community and its members are two stakeholders. A credit union’s own staff is another. What motivates them to get up each morning and come to work? The right players on the team will be motivated to make a difference. Giving them a what and why should provide them with the spark to do just that.

These two high-level questions the what and the why are the starting points for a strategic plan, but credit union leaders need to ask other questions as well, including how far ahead should the credit union look? Strategic plans need to be future-focused, so think not three or five years out but 10 years out or longer. Yes, there are more unknowns, but stretching a leadership team’s thinking can yield some surprising perspectives on just how far the credit union could go.

Finally, ask how will the credit union succeed in today’s competitive financial services market? Don’t worry about defining the details at this point. Focus instead on coming to a consensus about the credit union’s best opportunities to differentiate itself from competitors. In doing this, evaluate the organization’s strengths and resources. At times, leaders might identify strengths the credit union does not have now but will need in the future. This question provides a great opportunity to start considering where the credit union will need to make investments.

Are Your Ready For Strategic Planning?

Whether it be a traditional strategic planning facilitation or a strategy-based discussion, Callahan consultants combine years of industry experience with data-backed insight to bring your credit union a fresh perspective during the session. Learn how we can help guide your company’s strategic plan for 2019 and beyond.

An Ongoing Discussion

Strategic planning is challenging. It’s not easy to answer the questions posed here, but addressing them is critical to organizational alignment. It is also important for credit union teams to regularly discuss, test, and clarify their strategic plans.

Regular debate not only reaffirms the organization’s focus but also prepares the credit union to respond more quickly to changes in the landscape and scenarios already discussed. As Winston Churchill said, Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.

Other tough questions specific to today’s environment that credit union teams are tackling in strategic planning sessions include:

  • How will the Federal Reserve’s continuing moves to raise interest rates impact demand for cars, homes, and other purchases that depend on consumer borrowing?
  • How quickly should we move up our rates on loans and deposits, and what is the risk of not acting?
  • We are in our ninth year of an economic expansion. Is there a downturn coming, perhaps sooner than we expect?
  • How should we determine the best way to allocate resources between digital and in-person delivery channels?
  • How will emerging fintech firms impact our business, particularly with younger consumers?
  • In a competitive employment market, how can we attract and retain the talent we need to keep evolving our organization?

These are all important questions that will influence credit union business plans across the country. Taking the time throughout the year to discuss the credit union’s strategic direction will prepare the leadership team to address changes to the landscape as they occur. Credit unions that are clear on their strategic direction will be a step ahead in responding.

This article appeared originally in Credit Union Strategy & Performance. Read More Today.

October 15, 2018

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