Strategy during a crisis

on "May 27, 2020 1:58 pm"

Focusing on products and service won’t build lasting, sustainable success; mission-based strategy helps separate real opportunities from feel-good initiatives.

By Chris Howard Senior Vice President at Callahan & Associates

“Crisis produces opportunity!” It might be a cliché, but it’s true. And the credit unions best positioned to benefit from that opportunity are those driven by strategy.

Hawaii credit unions have access to resources from Callahan and Associates, including CUAnalyzer, through affiliation with Hawaii Credit Union League. Access the valuable resources today! Log in to access your free account. Questions? Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

In times like these, credit unions tend to focus on responding to immediate challenges, often sacrificing future potential to do so. That’s a false choice. Putting all your focus and resources toward emergency triage and first aid is missing the forest for the trees. It’s responding to the crisis but ignoring the resulting opportunity.

Doing the right thing today doesn’t guarantee better outcomes tomorrow. You need a solid plan to turn today’s goodwill into deeper, more sustainable relationships in the future. That’s why investing in strategy is now more important than ever. A long-term, actionable vision, deeply grounded in culture and mission, is what separates organizations that come out of crises with momentum from those that feel lucky to survive.  

But true strategy is hard work, even at the best of times. It requires commitment, energy, and other scarce resources. When the environment is chaotic, those things are dearer and the inevitable opportunity cost is more obvious. And, yet, it’s amid this confusion that strategy is most valuable.

More Than Anything, Members Want to Know You Care

The first job of credit unions during a crisis is to help members survive. By clarifying why you are doing this — by equipping your team with a common language that explains actions in terms of purpose and mission — mission-based strategy can empower you to meet your members’ emotional needs even as you deliver tangible help. That matters. 

People in crisis are afraid, especially if they feel their economic wellbeing is threatened. This shows up in research Gallup is conducting as part of a collaborative credit union program it offers with Callahan & Associates: Members need validation that their fears are reasonable. They need empathy as well as tangible assistance. This reassurance — knowing their credit union cares about their financial wellbeing — is what your members want above all else.

Doing the right thing today doesn’t guarantee better outcomes tomorrow. You need a solid plan to turn today’s goodwill into deeper, more sustainable relationships in the future.
Chris Howard, SVP, Callahan & Associates 

Financial wellbeing is more than money, it’s confidence and security as well — your emotional relationship with money. It’s how people perceive their financial situation, express their needs, make critical decisions, and remember events. That means engaging members in these terms can be an effective risk management tool, especially in a world where someone might have to choose who to trust or which obligation to keep current.

An example of this power can be seen in research from March that showed financial wellbeing plummeting. Gallup helped credit unions participating in the collaborative program to provide emotional validation and support alongside financial relief. For those that did so, member financial wellbeing rates have rebounded to almost pre-pandemic levels.  

Turning a Corner

As we start reopening the economy, we are at an inflection point. We turn our attention from survival to sustainability, decisions become harder, and the importance of mission-based strategy only grows. It’s how leaders make the right choices, balance risk and reward, and determine which opportunities to pursue. And tough as it is to divert scarce resources to future opportunity, there are concrete, actionable steps you can take to get started.

  1. Don’t cancel strategic planning! Can’t meet in person? Do it remotely. But do it! Hire a facilitator — it completely changes the tone and productivity — and make sure your agenda specifically addresses mission and strategy. Now is a great time to reset your timeframe and talk about where you want to be 10 years from now.
  2. Engage your board and management team in thinking differently. Strategy is a lens through which to evaluate your biggest choices: What are the long-term impacts on member engagement and wellbeing? Is this consistent with your mission? Will this decision move you closer to your long-term strategic objective? And if not, why not?
  3. Think beyond your financial statements. Strategic goals are more than just numbers; they are outcomes and impact. And long-term risk and reward can’t be measured accurately on the quarterly balance sheet or next year’s projected income statement. Strategy needs to be managed for the next 12 years more than the next 12 months.
  4. Invest strategically, especially where it only involves small changes to existing efforts. Research shows members want three kinds of emotional support right now:
    • “Build my hope.”
    • “Increase my peace of mind.”
    • “Reduce my stress.”

Cross-functional teams focusing on these areas can help align emotional and financial support, improve how it’s perceived and valued by members (increasing impact while lowering cost and risk), socialize the idea of organizing around impact instead of product lines, and lay a foundation for greater member engagement and wellbeing.

It’s not enough to play it safe. Focusing on products and service won’t deliver the emotional engagement with members that builds lasting, sustainable success. For that, credit unions need mission-based strategy to help them separate real opportunity from feel-good initiatives. 

Strategy provides a common framework for thinking and speaking, creates clarity around focus, investment, and message, and helps credit unions deliver on their mission. During times of crisis, it’s critical. Daily, existential decisions will determine member financial wellbeing, employees’ professional futures, and your long-term relevance. These stakes are too high to be left to gut, intuition, or chance.

Want more credit union strategies? Sign up for the CreditUnions.com free newsletter.