Who Needs Vision?

This recent tweet from Sarah Cooke (@CookeOnCUs) caught my attention:

#NACUSO Tom Davis: “The credit union industry has no unifying vision.”

My first thoughts were: 1) What industry does? and 2) So what?

Here are some things I hold to be truths: 1) Consumers have different financial services needs. 2) Consumers have different preferences for the type of relationship they want with their financial services providers. 3) No single credit union can effectively serve the differences in needs and relationship types inferred by points #1 and #2.


1. Each individual needs its OWN vision that unifies the products, people, processes, and policies of that credit union.

2. It would be impossible (given the above truths) to have a unifying vision for the credit union industry that was meaningful on any level.

Whenever the credit union discussion turns to “shared vision” I can’t help but think of REI. Like credit unions, REI is a non-profit cooperative. Unlike credit unions, REI doesn’t obsess over how it’s “different” from Dick’s Sporting Goods or Sports Authority, and it certainly doesn’t worry about whether or not the cooperative sporting goods industry has a shared vision (because, of course, there is no cooperative sporting goods industry).

Instead, they compete — very successfully — by delivering a superior customer experience. Which isn’t some vague “our customer service is superior” claim. They have 1) extremely knowledgeable employees who 2) help customers (and/or members, it doesn’t really matter to them) find the right product for them (the customer) and support all that with 3) return policies that are very customer-friendly. And the quality of products is generally just as good (if not better) than what you would find at other stores.

So, I’m not very convinced that the credit union industry needs a unifying vision. Which isn’t to say that each credit union shouldn’t have a unifying vision. But I’m getting sloppy here with terminology. Because it isn’t vision that’s missing in many credit unions (and banks, to be fair), it’s strategy: How will we compete in the marketplace, with whom, and for whom (i.e., which members/customers)?

A number of years ago, creating a vision or mission statement was the consulting project du jour (@workingonstep2 will remember this well). They fell out of favor because: 1) Every consulting project du jour falls out of favor after 2-3 years, and 2) They had very little impact on the day-to-day operations of the business.

In other words, there was a huge disconnect between vision and execution. Which is another reason why credit unions would be wasting their time trying to come up with a unifying vision: They wouldn’t know how to drive that vision down to tactical and measurable initiatives. (To be fair, few firms do).

So before you (or your credit union) participate in any effort to create a unifying vision for the CU industry, you should really ask: Why are we doing this? What will we (all CUs, not just your own CU) get out of this? And most importantly: What will be different?

I’m betting that a “unifying vision” won’t change much.

Postscript: After writing this, I sent it over to a friend for feedback, and let it sit for awhile. The questions I had to answer before posting this were: 1) Is it valuable enough to publish, and 2) What am I really trying to say here?

My friend gave me the confidence that it was worth publishing.

But the answer to the second question didn’t hit me clearly until I read something by Chip Filson, who wrote:

Credit unions can make 2010 not only the Year of the Consumer, but also the first year in a new decade of credit union leadership.”

And that’s when I realized what I’m trying to say to credit unions. Chip is spot-on, but please don’t wait for every other credit union to get in alignment before making that happen.

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