Takeaways From The 2012 CU Water Cooler Conference

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My personal objectives for attending the 2012 CU Water Cooler conference were three-fold: 1) To change the way people think about the world (assumes I’m speaking at the conference); 2) To connect with people in a way that I can’t on a regular day-to-day basis; and 3) To become better at what I do.

In retrospect, maybe I set the bar too low. After all, the 2nd goal shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish when you consider that, on a day to day basis, I work in my basement and only interact with people through Twitter and Skype. The 3rd goal should be really easy to accomplish.

I couldn’t tell you if my first objective was accomplished at the recent CU Water Cooler Conference in Nashville. That’s for the attendees to decide.

But I can tell you that the 2nd objective was easily met. And I believe that the seeds for accomplishing the 3rd were provided.

Here are my top takeaways from the conference:

1) You have to balance delusion and persistence

In the context of William Azaroff’s presentation, this bit of advice referred to his friend’s decision to persist with her goal of becoming a screenwriter after years of failing. William admitted the he had come to the conclusion that his friend was being delusional, but that she persisted and ultimately succeeded.

But, had she quit, and moved on, it’s quite possible that she would’ve been successful at something else, and had she done that, William could still have used this as an example of balancing delusion and persistence.

There are personal reasons why this point struck a chord with me, but, in the context of the conference, it resonated with me because I sometimes wonder if the credit union industry is delusional in thinking it serves “the little guy” or if its just being correctly persistent.

The persistent/delusion contrast works on so many different levels. Is your firm delusional in thinking that your current strategy will work going forward, or are you being correctly persistent? Or, on the flipside, should you be more persistent with your current strategy instead of abandoning it for some new-fangled management consulting context?

[For William’s take on the conference, see his blog post on it]

2) Branding isn’t really dead, but personal branding should be

I hate to disappoint David Baker, but I can’t help him achieve his objective for his presentation, titled Branding Is Dead.

David was hoping that attendees would react in one of two ways to his speech: Aha! or BS! With apologies to David, my reaction was neither. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t find the presentation incredibly valuable.

At the risk of oversimplifying the key points, the gist of the “branding is dead” message is that branding is a “surface term used by marketing agencies to get clients’ money” and that it’s a “watered down process” that “everyone does, but not in a way that matters.”

No argument from me. But the fact that everyone is doing it wrong doesn’t mean it’s dead.

The problem is that many marketers and managers think that branding is something that a marketing agency can help with, and no marketing agency is going to dispel this misguided thought.

A firm’s brand is the result of what it is and does, not its advertising, logos, and marketing messages. An agency might help a company understand what customers and other consumers perceive that firm’s brand to be. But a firm’s brand is the result of many things — many of which cannot be influenced or changed by a marketing agency.

David made the point that much of what passes as branding is simply communication about what a company would rather be, not what it is. Bingo.

This last point convinces me, however, that the whole notion of “personal branding” is total BS.

A subsequent session on personal branding left me totally confused. I didn’t understand how what the panelists were talking about —  under the banner of personal branding — was different from them just being themselves.

It left me with this question:

If you do something in the context of creating or furthering your personal brand that isn’t consistent with “you being you”, isn’t that just as disingenuous as a company advertising what it wants to be, instead of what it is?

Do you think I’m snarky and difficult on this blog because it’s part of some “personal branding” effort? No! It’s because I AM a snarky and difficult-to-deal-with asshole.

And if you do stuff that isn’t consistent with who you are, in some effort to develop some kind of personal brand, then welcome to the asshole club.

3) Credit unions haven’t lost their souls

I’m not sure if inviting Keith Leggett from the ABA to speak (and his agreeing to do so) was an act of bravery on both parties’ part, or if Keith regularly speaks at credit union conferences. If the former, then hats off to both parties. If the latter, then “DAMN!”

I thought Keith’s presentation was great, and I agreed with a lot of what he said. Some, or many, of his arguments might have been old news for a lot of attendees, however.

If so, then DAMN! because attendees got little chance to respond to an accusation that Keith made: That credit unions have “lost their souls.”

The credit union industry (or movement) has a lot of problems.

[If that statement offends you, then: 1) too bad; 2) grow up; and 3) get out of the business world. Because EVERY industry has lots of problems. It’s the result of the combination of current economic conditions and the complex business world we live in.]

But “having lost their souls” is NOT one of the credit union industry’s problems.

Keith insinuated that because (some) credit unions have resorted to marketing tactics to gin up membership, they’ve lost their souls. Sorry, Keith, but that that is hardly evidence of a lost soul. And talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

One of Keith’s points that I do agree with, however — and that I’m glad he brought up — is that there are a lot of issues on which banks and credit unions agree and should be working more closely together.

Sadly, accusing potential collaborators of having lost their souls might not be the best way to kick off a working relationship.

On the other hand….

There are far too many people in the credit union industry who jump on every bit of negative news regarding big banks to further their “banks are evil” perspective (you know who are).

This is not a zero-sum game. Credit unions don’t gain only if banks lose. Both parties have a vested interest in — and should be working together to create — a healthy financial services industry.

This isn’t happening today. Keith Leggett’s appearance at the CU Water Cooler conference could have been a small step towards that collaboration. Instead, it devolved into a wonky policy debate.

DAMN! A missed opportunity.


In a broader context, this potentially missed opportunity was a minor point. The CU Water Cooler conference is a unique experience in a crowded conference market. 

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