Ban The Comment Box And Build Something Better

Two credit unions share how they bring workplace ideas, issues, and opportunities to the surface.

Credit union employees all work for a cooperative, but do they communicate like they are a part of one?

Some communication silos such as those that commonly occur between the back office and the front line are long standing and well documented. But silos can also flourish in the middle of a department, between managers and their employees,or even among the leadership team.

Such breakdowns in the workplace put an organization at risk for things like lackluster productivity, inconsistent service levels, and high employee turnover. They can also cause critical missteps that jeopardize the institution’s reputational,financial, or legal standing.

The communication blueprints of Suncoast Credit Union ($5.8B, Tampa, FL) and Tulsa Federal Credit Union($668M,Tulsa, OK) both high-performing institutions offer two ways to ensure employees can thrive in their workplace.

The Suncoast Approach


SUNCOAST Credit Union
data as of 09.30.14

  • HQ: Tampa, FL
  • ASSETS: $5.8B
  • MEMBERS: 600,282
  • EMPLOYEES: 1,190
  • 12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 5.32%
  • 12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 6.15%
  • ROA: 1.35%

The Strategy

Make time available in the workweek for formal and informal get-togethers between executives and department leaders.

What It Returned

Ownership of cross-departmental initiatives, efficient workflow, and early detection of potential roadblocks.

An average turnover rate of 10-12%.

An increase in the average length of time new hires stay. Suncoast uses this metric instead of average tenure, which can be skewed by the presence of a few long-term employees.

How It Works

Staffing shakeups during the recession and ongoing fluctuations in its marketplace have caused Suncoast Credit Union to adopt an employee communication strategy that emphasizes leading by example.

We have approximately 1,200 employees spread throughout 56 locations and 17 counties, says Gary Vien, the credit union’s chief administrative officer. With 1,200 employees, you’re also going to have 1,200 personalities.

Most often, when employees leave, they leave because of their boss, Vien continues. So we’ve been investing in becoming better communicators as well as better leaders.


According to a 2008 global study from CPP, Inc. a provider of organizational assessment resources conflict in the workplace is more widespread than commonly thought. According to the study:

  • Globally, 85% of employees have experienced workplace conflict and 27% have experienced a personal attack 25% have taken time off to avoid the issue.
  • In the United States, 36% of workers always or frequently deal with conflict. These experiences sidetrack workers for an average of 2.8 working hours per week.
  • In 24% of cases, employees are fired as a result of the conflict.
  • The United States ranks higher than the global average for employees who voluntarily quit because of workplace issues.

Create One Team

A cornerstone to Suncoast’s success is the all-team philosophy, launched in 2008 to address noticeable departmental communication gaps between the front office and support services. The concept now dictates how the credit union disperses informationfrom the executive level as well how it returns feedback.

In the past, we tended to push changes to the front line without a full accounting of the impact they might have, says Susan Johnson, Suncoast’s chief operating officer. Then later, we’d hear back from staff that someof those things took too long or that members didn’t like them.

The fact that many unit leaders tended to work independently and focus on individual rather than institutional goals further complicated the matter.

We needed to reiterate that we are all one team with a common purpose, which is to provide great service and value to our members, Johnson says.

Bridge The Gap

To start bridging the communication gap, the credit union initiated what it called day in the life visits between the regional vice presidents who run the branch network and the vice presidents of support services, two divisions known tobutt heads.

Suncoast required leaders from each group to shadow and meet with staff from the other group to better understand their respective motivations. In addition, the credit union implemented a policy that leaders of both parties had to jointly address employeeissues or complaints from either department.

By the time the recession hit, the familiarity across the departments made it feasible to transition leaders and employees from struggling units into other areas with minimal readjustment.

We had zero layoffs and zero branch closures during the recession because we shifted around individuals, Vien says. Even today, there are times when auto lending is especially strong or students are applying en masse for school loans.Being able to adjust people’s priorities has helped us better manage those peaks and valleys.

Collect Feedback

These all-team partnerships vet all new initiatives, products, and services, which means Suncoast can capture feedback and flag improvements or adjustments such as a compliance issue or technological incompatibility before it spends significanttime or effort.

Translating the all-team approach to middle management has proven difficult because of the managers’ proximity to the day-to-day action, but Suncoast has refined some of the all-team components into a mid-level program it calls the voiceof the member team.

Here, managers leverage their frequent interactions with members and front-line staff to capture feedback and channel it back up to key decision-makers.

We’re getting our managers out of the office and onto the floor so people feel comfortable coming to them with issues and ideas, Vien says. We’re trying to communicate that you don’t need to resolve every issue byyourself. In fact, you’re doing the organization and yourself a disservice if you are not asking other people, how would you solve this?’

Next: The Tulsa Approach

The Tulsa Approach

The Strategy

Establish an employee intranet or online community for social interactions, survey employees, and have the CEO engage with all levels of the organization.

What It Returned

  • Better member and employee survey results.
  • A 5.6% annual membership growth rate.
  • Deeper average relationships.
  • Ideas for new products and services.


data as of 09.30.14

  • HQ: Tulsa, OK
  • ASSETS: $668M
  • MEMBERS: 63,400
  • EMPLOYEES: 213
  • 12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 5.2%
  • 12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 6.51%
  • ROA: 0.13%

How It Works

Greg Gallant, CEO of Tulsa Federal Credit Union, initiated a cultural revolution when he took the helm in March 2011, one that has touched nearly every aspect of the workforce at this $668 million institution.

We’ve had an uptick in our workforce of about 15% over the past three years, which is more than had occurred over the past 20, Gallant says. And even though we lost some people during this period of transition, we still havea large group of tenured employees who have been here 15-plus years.

The resulting mix of employee experience and fresh insight has been a major force behind Tulsa FCU’s growth over the past few years; however, it has also required additional effort from management to ensure everyone is on the same page.

We didn’t have a formal HR department or even a mission statement and a set of core values, so employees had to find their own path, Gallant says. For the most part, their intuitions were spot-on. But those concepts had neverbeen fully institutionalized.

So Gallant and a select group of employees spent approximately eight weeks defining and refining the institution’s core tenets. The credit union then rotated tenured employees through new hire orientation to ensure they understood the newly definedpriorities.

Offer Face Time

Gallant meets with different groups of employees for a couple of hours every month. The meetings are a way for the CEO to connect with each and every employee at least once a year outside of the presence of other executives and direct supervisors. TulsaFCU’s 30-plus managers at the mid-level and higher receive similar CEO face time at least every other week.

These meetings can be about things that need improvement, things that are going well, or new ideas about what we could be doing, Gallant says. They offer an unfiltered dialogue and are as much about employees bringing me up to speedas me communicating with them.

This policy has helped the credit union address potentially negative issues in a timely manner.

Take The Pulse

In addition to defining institutional values and meeting with employees, Gallant’s approach to culture-building includes an annual 55-question employee survey that relies on responses from the executive team, support services, and the front line.

The survey is facilitated by a third-party, who disseminates the questionnaire and helps the credit union dissect responses over a period of four to five days. The credit union spends two days in group discussions and listening sessions that often drawout details beyond what respondents provided in the written responses.

Above: Employee interactions and kudos on Tulsa FCU’s Yammer page.

After the questionnaire process is complete, the senior and middle management teams discuss the results as well as strategy and implementation.

There are approximately 500 financial institutions that take this survey every year, and our objective is to be in the top 10%, Gallant says. We’re just about 2% below that goal now versus being more than 20% below it two-and-a-halfyears ago.

Encourage Expression

Tulsa encourages employees to express themselves in several ways. Notably, it has installed floor-to-ceiling dry erase whiteboards in several offices and conference rooms.

We don’t have a training class now without whiteboards and markers because it gives employees a way to throw things out there and participate instead of just listening to a lecture, says Carolyn Hutchison, Tulsa’s senior vicepresident of HR and development. When we’re done, we take a picture so we can track progress and follow up on ideas.

Employees also frequently take their interactions online through Yammer, a company-based social media network that allows users to create individual profiles, form groups, and visit dedicated pages for things like professional development, training, informalchats, and photo sharing.

When I started, we had meetings where people who had worked here for years had never met each other in person, Gallant says There’s no excuse for that, so we encourage Yammer as a way for our employees to get to know one anotherand feel like a community.

Tulsa FCU’s Yammer community even has a Rumor Has It page that allows employees to post credit union murmurings for managers to address. This helps head off potential misunderstandings.

Although credit union executives were initially the driving force behind many of Tulsa FCU’s communication efforts, employees now consistently challenge both themselves and their leaders to push the ball forward.

If you spend more waking hours at work than anywhere else, you owe it to yourself to understand and be a part of what your organization is about, where it’s coming from, and where it’s going, Gallant says. That’swhat we’re trying to achieve here.

Above: The Rumor Has It section helps Tulsa staff address misunderstood or controversial issues in a proactive way.
January 20, 2015

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