Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Are you content with the status quo?

I have had the great pleasure of spending some time with credit unions outside of the United States in the past few months. First, I was honored to speak at the World Credit Union Conference in Gdansk, Poland. I met many amazing leaders of credit unions throughout the world. This past week I spent time talking with three different groups of Irish credit unions about their challenges to gain scale and their hope to look to collaboration through credit union service organizations (CUSOs) to build a better future.

Through these conversations I have met many great, dedicated people. However, I have noticed a trend that I think is not unique to credit unions. That trend is that people can often be sorted into those that are satisfied with the status quo and those that intolerant of that same status quo.

This seems like a dramatic observation. To be clear, it is not like making a distinction between Nelson Mandela and those that protected apartheid in South Africa. While there are similar reasons that cause people to protect the status quo, most of our lives are not defined by such clear distinctions of black and white. Most of our lives are the subtlety of shades of grey (come on, not those shades of grey…).

Credit unions in Ireland face a clear choice. There are more than 400 credit unions serving a country of a little more than 4 million people. As a contrast, the state of Oregon has a few less than 4 million people and about 75 credit unions. The banking system is in shambles as the government has essentially nationalized the two major banks. Credit unions, for many years the “bank” of the people, are facing challenges that will force them to radically change their business model going forward. A government commission report suggests that mergers may be the answer and has appointed a “restructuring board” to facilitate the future. It is clearly a transformational time in Ireland.

With some colleagues from the U.S., I was fortunate to spend some time with three different groups over the course of a week. While there are as many opinions as there are credit unions, from my perspective the groups were separated into those who knew that change was necessary but were waiting for someone to bring it to them and those that were clear that they had to take charge to create the needed change (pardons to President Obama for borrowing his idea that “we are the change we have been waiting for”).

I think that history, business and life is most often (maybe only) changed by those with a true intolerance for the status quo. Not those that suggest, “It is what it is” but those that can add, “it becomes what you make of it.” Truly the world is only changed by the few who in the words of RFK do not look at things the way they are and ask why? Instead they dream of things that never were and ask why not? 

The Irish credit union system is remarkable to me. About two-thirds of Irish citizens belong to a credit union. They are clearly a part of Irish cultural life – as much as the football or hurling teams (maybe even the Church). Yet they have not captured the vast majority of their members’ financial lives. Some of the issue is regulatory – alas the regulators will always be with us – but many are stuck in the glory days of the founding of credit unions in the 1950s and 1960s. Surely they were glory days, but it is a new world.

Every industry can be like this. Credit unions in the United States are often like this. We remember the glory days when every employee of the “company” or the “plant” were members. We wonder why our new members don’t have the same affinity as those on the plant floor from yesteryear. Communities can be like this, remembering the “good old days.” School districts that refuse to face the fact that they are too small or too isolated to compete in a global marketplace are like this. In my home state of Iowa, we have 99 counties, to make sure that the average citizen could ride his horse to the county seat within a day’s ride. Really.

But those that are intolerant of the status quo are unique. They often live on the edge. Sometimes they don’t look like us – they have tattoos or piercings; they are a different color; they have weird ideas; they just seem different in our status quo world. They say things that are rude, brash and uncaring. And they are essential in order to create the future. The greatest leaders I have known in my life have had an acceptance for this diversity – not the type defined by law (gender, race, religion), but the type defined by thought or a way of being. It is those unique souls that  challenge something without wondering whether they might look stupid or offend someone. They challenge it simply because they thought it could be better.

So my learnings from my time with the Irish credit unions:
  1. It is always easier to suggest transformational change from the outside, than the inside. We are all better fixing someone else’s problem than our own. It is as true for me as anyone.
  2.  It takes courage to do something significantly outside the status quo, no matter what that status quo looks like. The inertia is heavily weighted towards doing what we already do today.
  3. There are a brave few that will change the reality of today, against the conventional wisdom.
  4. Those brave few remind me of those brave few I know from my own past. There are common traits. I met people this past week who I know will succeed in bending the future and making a lasting impact on the future of their industry. Their passion, dedication and persuasiveness will win the day. A continent apart, the traits are the same.
  5.  The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The hard part is knowing exactly what must be done and taking the risk. It would be easier if someone would do it for you. But that isn’t the way the world works. It takes an individual to take the first step.

I am anxious to see the progress of the people I met this week. They have all the tools to be fundamental forces in rebuilding the Irish economy. They have the soul to care deeply for every Irish citizen. And they have the spirit to succeed. When we were touring the West coast of Ireland during a day off, we saw how the Irish overcame the potato famine to build a successful future. Comparatively this banking thing is a piece of cake.

But it will take leadership. Like any dramatic change there are those that rise to the occasion. They rally those around them to see a different future. I mentioned to a veteran of the Irish credit union movement that you can’t take your political capital with you. He smiled knowingly. I know he will be a part of leading the future – respecting the past that he clearly helped to build since the early 1980s, but also to lay the foundation for the next generation.

You may think this issue is unique to credit unions or to Ireland, but I suggest it is the primary issue of our day. In America we have an election coming up. Without getting into politics, both sides of the aisle could clearly do better if we would have leaders that would lead based on addressing the issues of the day head on. In politics as well as business, we limp along day-to-day with the hope that someone (anyone) will fix it. We all know the issues and nod knowingly. And then we go through the rest of our lives.

It is those that are intolerant that change the future. Those that may seem on the fringe. Acceptance of the status quo leads to complacency. Complacency leads to laziness. Laziness is a fundamental element of decline.

Transformational times call for transformational change. That’s a call to all of us. Sometimes it takes seeing it somewhere else to realize it in ourselves. Maybe we are the change we have been waiting for.

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