New Year’s Resolution: Find Your True North

In a changing economic environment, this guiding framework helps institutions determine where they want to go and how to get there.

Top-Level Takeaways

  • True North is an organizational concept that pushes a credit union to map out its strategic focus and prevents teams from drifting off course.
  • Declining membership, loan growth challenges, and outdated technology are just a few common signs that an organization might benefit from a True North assessment.


Canyon State Credit Union
Data as of 09.30.18

HQ: Phoenix, AZ
ASSETS: $196.9M
MEMBERS: 18,281
ROA: 0.25%

Several years of working with credit unions in conservatorship has honed the enterprise-assessment skills of Jane Dobbs, CEO of Canyon State Credit Union ($196.9M, Phoenix, AZ). Through the challenging work, the leader has developed a process that helps financial institutions move toward their True North a strategic statement that describes an ideal condition the credit union is striving to achieve and serves as a compass that guides how the team will get there.

One thing Dobbs has learned in her years in the industry is that even credit unions that appear in good shape on the surface can be in trouble if they don’t have a clear vision of what they are or want to be.

The call report tells many stories, says Dobbs, drawing from personal experience.

Dobbs joined Canyon State in September 2013. Her review of the credit union’s call report during her recruitment phase led her to believe the cooperative had some challenges but was healthy overall. However, on her first day, she learned the entire real estate department had just resigned. The new CEO needed to figure out why and fix the root issue fast.

Here, Dobbs shares key steps any organization can take to identify where it is now, build an action plan, and maintain its True North.


What’s your process for assessing an organization?

Jane Dobbs, CEO, Canyon State Credit Union

Jane Dobbs: Effective assessments start with people and culture. Ideally, I like to take my time and interview everyone in a non-threatening way. However, that’s not always possible. For example, when I first arrived at Canyon State, I had an immediate need to assess our real estate department. So, that’s where I started.

It’s important to ask everyone the same questions to get a fair assessment of the organization and create an encompassing view of the enterprise. Those questions can lead to deeper conversations or questions to identify root causes of issues. One-on-one interviews also help you collect details and build trust.

In addition to assessing people and culture, I also look at the organization’s processes, profitability, and potential.

Assessment Questions

Jane Dobbs asks everyone at the credit union the same questions to get a fair assessment of the organization. Here are four examples:

  • How is your department organized?
  • Are processes automated or manual?
  • What types of reports do you need? What’s missing?
  • How does your area impact the member?

What are some common signs that a credit union needs to find its True North?

JD: Declining membership; member service, loan growth, and employee or vendor performance issues; a disorganized reporting structure; silos; outdated technology; lack of community involvement; and lack of goals are all issues that can be symptoms of larger problems. If you see these types of issues at your credit union, it probably makes sense to take the next step. Assessing your people, processes, profitability, and potential can help you identify solutions and start resolving some of these common problems.

Click the tabs below to view Canyon State’s 4 Areas Of True North Assessment.


Jane Dobbs, CEO of Canyon State Credit Union, recommends leaders start their True North journey with an assessment of people and culture.


Finding True North also requires an assessment of processes. Often, leaders can uncover, and resolve, manual processes or missing pieces that make it more difficult to serve members.


It’s not enough to build a strategy around serving members. A credit union must also be financially healthy enough to operate over the long-term. That’s why a profitability assessment is important when identifying an organization’s True North.


Lastly, Dobbs advises leaders to assess the credit union’s potential. Are there elephants in the room to address? What’s holding the credit union back? Where should the organization focus its limited resources to best serve its community?

How do you build trust to help staff feel comfortable sharing potential problems?

JD: Start by being honest and making it clear you’re there to help. I’ve had to be honest enough to acknowledge that some of the organizations I’ve worked with have had serious problems to solve. I let staff know that I want to understand and help fix the problems. If we don’t work together to find solutions, nobody wins.

The time you invest in developing relationships is critical. When you’re taking over as a new CEO, the departing CEO can set you up for success by giving you the lay of the land. That can be quite helpful.

After the assessment is complete, do you jump straight to planning?

JD: No. I stop after the assessment to identify the True North statements for the organization. It’s important to set your goals before you start creating a plan of action.

Canyon State’s True North Statements

Retrench, reorganize, and restructure the credit union’s core functions, staff, and business units to improve profitability; streamline processes and create sustainable high performance teams by 12.31.17.

Reposition and relaunch the credit union in the marketplace and community to improve member growth and improve market awareness of the credit union and brand by 12.31.17.

Once you know what the credit union’s True North is, you can develop a plan to address gaps, maximize opportunities, support SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-based) strategies and goals, and cultivate your True North statements.

How has focusing on its True North helped Canyon State become more successful?

JD: We’ve improved in a number of key areas, including member and deposit growth. From an internal perspective, we have performance management in place and a healthy culture. Member service has improved dramatically our Net Promoter Score has increased from 26.5 to 75. And, we’ve made strides in brand awareness, adding a new SEG and sponsoring a financial education show for the past two years.

True North isn’t just for credit unions. Use this guide to create a personal True North statement for 2019.

How do you ensure True North stays top-of-mind rather than the credit union retreating to business as usual?

JD: I’ve found that big projects can derail the organization’s broader focus. These projects do take resources, but that doesn’t mean we can forget about all the other things that are important. We had a core conversion at Canyon State, but I made it clear when we could no longer use the core conversion as an excuse.

Frequent and consistent communication helps everyone remain focused. At Canyon State, we do a monthly newsletter that carries the same theme high functionality, low friction and updates the things that are important for us as an organization.

What advice do you have for other credit unions looking for their True North?

JD: Engage people in the process at all levels. I think as C-level individuals, we tend to take it all upon ourselves. We think we need to figure out everything, but we need everyone to be successful. When you engage your entire team and focus them on a goal, you’ll find success. That’s my biggest recommendation engage everyone you can to help carry that load. One person cannot do it all.


Need Help Taking The First Steps?

Callahan & Associates is here to help. Using industry data, a network of leading executives, and more than 30 years of experience in the credit union industry, Callahan helps leadership teams think differently about framing challenges and developing answers for the new year.

December 19, 2018

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