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The Credit Union Difference – My Discussion with Wellington Holbrook

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Wellington Holbrook from Connect First Credit Union. I’ve known Wellington for many years and was really excited when he found a role in cooperative finance working in Calgary. Wellington and I chatted about how credit unions are different, our ability to innovate for the customer and how we can be a catalyst for local economies. Have a listen:

Apple Podcast

Spotify

Let me know what you think. Drop a comment below

My time on the Talking 306 Podcast

Eric speaks with host Dale Richardson about his life and career, including his family’s background and Saskatchewan roots; growing up in a military family and moving around Canada; how he got started in the financial and credit union world; his approach to leadership; the importance of failing forward and taking the time to THINK during the day; Conexus’s new headquarters in Regina; investing in Saskatchewan’s tech sector; and much more.

The Talking 306 Podcast is hosted and produced by Dale Richardson, and is a proud member of the Saskatchewan Podcast Network.

https://www.stitcher.com/show/talking-306-podcast/episode/eric-dillon-79811910

The gravity around “being competitive” and why it’s hurting uniqueness – for companies and for leaders

Recently, I was asked to join the BC Young Leaders Group to participate in their annual conference this year. I am always honoured to be asked to hang out with the young, bright minds working in the credit union system. The energy in the room and the passion for the purpose of cooperatives is a great way to fill my cup for a few months.

Their conference is titled “Executing Innovation” and they specifically asked me to talk about things like:

  1. How do you help your organization move forward when your superiors may be creating roadblocks?
  2. How to pitch ideas and generate buy-in
  3. How to develop an Innovation Mindset

I decided to call my presentation – Changing the “That Hasn’t Been Done Before” Mindset.  

Here’s why 🙂

When I was in business school (both times), there was much discussed about how to “be competitive” and “measure” your success. The challenge was that the measurement or comparison was always against others in the industry. The measurements in banking were not that hard to figure out — return on equity, return on assets, assets under management, efficiency ratio, productivity, etc. In fact, I would suggest that if you look at the balanced scorecards of multinational banks, community banks you’d likely see much of the same. If you went further and examined financial cooperatives you might also be surprised to see a small collection of the most used metrics that describe success.

In the businesses cases that I worked on in school, the success of the fictional business was a measurement against peer groups or others that competed in the same “vertical” industry. Both the Professors and the Students continually made reference to “being competitive”, “chasing the competition” and “closing the gap”. In today’s world, we are bombarded with Google alerts, Twitter lists and hashtag mentions of competitors, that we then use to immediately compare and contrast against the businesses that we lead.

The comparisons don’t stop with the businesses we lead either. The comparison and chase extends to the leaders in those businesses. The gravity for each of us to look, feel and appear like others is palpable. We likely all have leaders in our lives that we admire or perhaps even want to be like. I am no different. There were and still are many leaders that I look up to and hope that one day I could grow and develop to be more “like them”. It’s fine if you aspire to achieve the leadership outcomes that other great leaders achieve. I want to be more patient, more open minded, a better listener and more of a catalyst type of leader. I know leaders that do all of those things exceptionally well and I admire them greatly.

But the chase is dangerous for leaders.

It’s one thing to want to be better as a leader or business and then look for examples of what better could look like in one area or another. But the development and growth of both the leader and the business has to be in the context of being a better version of myself (or itself for businesses). As I said above, I want to be more patient. But I cannot let the pursuit and growth of being more patient tear away at the passion that I know helps me to succeed. Here is where the challenge lies. If I admire the patience of other leaders and just look to re-create that for myself, I might wake up one day very different than the “Eric version” of the leader I aspire to be. It’s the same for businesses and the evolution of the businesses we lead needs to be the same. There are other businesses I admire as being super innovative. I want to create a more innovative credit union, but it has to be a more innovative version of Conexus not just recreate a version of Conexus that looks like a different business. If we did, we might wake up one day with a business that is not aligned to our purpose or strays from our values un-intentionally. I had a great mentor very early in my career that made this point to me in a very direct way:

“As you grow as a leader, you still need to be yourself, everyone else is taken”

I realized later that was originally an Oscar Wilde quote, but it resonates with me and I use it frequently with those I mentor and coach.

The chase is also dangerous for businesses.

I was at a presentation a few years ago by Youngme Moon. She was speaking about this very issue which was highlighted in her book Different. I vividly recall a picture she showed during the presentation. It was something like the one below and she asked the conference participants which one of these we were as a business and how will we create a sense of uniqueness in the mind of our customers and potential customers.

How would you position yourself if you were the CEO of any one of these products? I know when I buy water, I care about which one I see in the cooler, how it is packaged (recyclable or not) and the size of the bottle compared to my thirst. That’s it, that’s all. I also don’t want to be a leader in any of these businesses where the consumer cares so very little about the choice. I appreciate that finding a financial partner and buying water is different and personal finance is certainly more emotive, but it was a great reminder of why uniqueness matters.

It was a sobering question when you really think about how you create competitive differentiation in the cluttered mind of the consumer. It’s also a question about how you go about the growth and development of the business and the leaders within and the danger of the “chase”. There is tremendous gravity around the chase, and we all need to be careful about allowing it to pull us places we don’t intend to be.

If you have or develop a bunch of leaders that look like each other and those leaders look, act and talk like those that work in many other businesses in your industry, what are the chances of you creating something unique, special and distinct for those that you seek to serve, either as customers or as employees (customers of the leadership environment you create)?

Very small indeed.

It’s hard enough to create new ideas, new strategies and uniqueness in business. It’s harder yet unless you are completely aware and conscious of the gravity to “sameness” and think regularly about how to grow, develop, learn and create in the context of being unique and in the case of leaders, being themselves.

I was reminded of this early by the very same mentor when he said:

Be careful. If you chase the competition, you might just catch them. Then what?

May we all celebrate those around us (business and leaders) that are unique and revel in being themselves, first and foremost.

To the BC Young Leaders – see you in a few weeks 🙂

Patience, “The Infinite Game” & Cooperatives

I just finished reading “The Infinite Game” from Simon Sinek. The book is based on earlier work from James Carse in 1986 about understanding the difference between a finite mindset and an infinite mindset. It was a provocative poke at the current state of business and capitalism and the need to ensure that both investors and business leaders are focused on the long game of creating value through their investment choices (for investors) and business decisions (for leaders). Sinek argues that business today talks about “winning” and “beating the competition” and the disconnect that creates in the behaviour of both investors and leaders. In the case of my industry – how do you “win” banking? There must be some secret scorecard for our industry right? Of course there isn’t. Ultimately, he argues that there is no such thing as “winning” in any industry, just arbitrary, near term business metrics that drive leaders and investors to a more short term view of their businesses.

At the same time, I have seen and read many articles suggesting that the global pandemic we find ourselves in will be an inflection point in terms of business disruption and that the behaviour of the consumer has been or will be forever changed. Watching in our own credit union how the pandemic has accelerated the move to digital transactions makes the argument easy to believe. Of course, time will tell if this is truly the “TSN turning point” for digital disruption in commerce. They say that you always overestimate the change that will take place in the near term and underestimate the level of change that will happen over the longer term. I don’t know who they are, but that has certainly been the case in my business career as business has evolved faster than I would have predicted over the longer term course of my career. That’s an easier way to say that I am old 😂.

For me, there are a number of signals that confirm that things are indeed changing. Here’s a few that have been top of mind for me lately:

Capital market shortcomings – Last week, Canadian markets were at virtually the same level as they were pre-pandemic. What?!? Are you telling me that investors believe that an identical stream of future cash flows will accrue to them from the same firms post pandemic as pre-pandemic? Really? On the contrary, I believe they are desperately betting on short term hail mary / efficiency / cost cutting / M & A / etc. will prop up share prices in the near term. Do you think this will incent business leaders to consider the strategic choices of this inflection point or drive for nearer term success that they can showcase as “beating the competition” and “winning” in a down market?

Cheap money – We are operating at historically low costs for money. This also artificially inflates near term success for firms and further, encourages higher leverage positions as money is considered to be on sale these days. That might not be all bad, if the additional cash is used to support new initiatives, research, growth and transformation but watching consumers and businesses and how they are taking advantage of low borrowing costs and where the additional money is being spent, makes me nervous.

Rapidly changing consumer expectations – Make no mistake that the mindset of the consumer is changed. I have read lots about how the health crisis has only accelerated the shift to digital for consumers and that the shift was already underway. Perhaps. But the speed with which consumer behaviour is changing is striking and businesses will need to respond not with tweaks to their model but transformative change. We will no longer have the time to make slow methodical changes to our business and still keep up with what consumers expect.

Growing concern about inequity and exclusion – the current business models have contributed to exclusion and income inequity and those challenges are being surfaced in front of all of us in a really big way. Look around. Every conversation I am in today involves inclusion, equity, diversity and a growing sense that all of us (POC, LGBTQIA2S+, Allies, CIS, Indigenous, Short fat bald guys, etc.) need to come together to make it better. It matters greatly that people feel like they can participate in the economy and have opportunities to succeed.

The demand for transparency / authenticity in business – In a similar way, I believe that we are on the cusp of a new era of expectations around transparency and authenticity in business. That doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be happy with the decisions you make, but what it does mean is that you are open, honest and transparent not just about WHAT you want to achieve but HOW you intend to get there. My sense is that there is a real desire for people to work, engage and partner with businesses that they trust and those that demonstrate values that align with their own. People don’t expect perfection, but they do expect to know what you stand for and they expect for you to try your best to live that everyday.

If we are at an inflection point in terms of business models and transformational changes are necessary to support new ways in which to serve customers and build businesses, then this is also a perfect time to reset expectations and mindsets of  both investors and business leaders. I have a few ideas on how leaders can stay focused on changing their mindset:

  1. Purpose: Business were historically created to solve problems and monetize the solution. Today, I believe that businesses and organizations exist to deliver on a purpose. What is your why? This clear articulation of why you exist and what you seek to do is not marketing fodder. It is a promise to employees, consumers and your community about what you stand for and what you will be held accountable to deliver. It is the call that will galvanize organizations, pull people together and inspire them to do great work. In our organization, we have done away with mission, vision and all of that other garbage I learned in business school. Today, in our organization, we have a single purpose and we are united in our passion to bring it to life. It is not a short statement of some metric – it is a moonshot of aspiration that permeates our DNA.
  2. Courage: It takes great courage for investors and business leaders to swim against the current. I am speaking next month to a group of young finance professionals on the west coast about changing the “it hasn’t been done that way before” mindset.  I have a few examples in my career of ideas that were pitched and ridiculed that today, seem brilliant. In a discussion with a colleague yesterday morning about this topic, he offered a new book for my reading list that speaks to this same idea. Offering new ideas and gathering momentum around them is hard and few do it well. Why do you think we have a whole industry that has emerged around change management, innovation, agile, etc? How are ideas surfaced in your company and what happens to them and those that propose them?
  3. Profit Models vs. Sustainability Models: We have worked hard in our business to think about financial performance through the lens of sustainability. This thinking goes back to a discussion about 15 years ago with a colleague in my former role and has taken that long to think through. Today, we think about how we are performing in the context of how much is sufficient to sustain the business and how much capacity do we have to invest in creating the next generation of ourselves. The amount we have available is calculated in almost real time and is used to accelerate or decelerate as necessary. The model has bled into decision making, Board reporting, pandemic responses, etc. as a more long term way to financially plan in our cooperative.
  4. Daily Improvement: Much has been made about agile, minimum viable products, fail fast, etc in current business literature.  I am no expert on all of those things but I believe the root of all of it is in the idea of constant improvement and continually moving towards the purpose of the organization. The products may change, the delivery model may evolve, new channels will be built – but at the end of the day are you constantly moving towards the purpose in #1 above. This is a very different mindset than “winning”. In the end, you just have to keep moving forward towards your purpose.
  5. Team: I start presentations about leadership development with a statement “that the business with the best people will win”.  I appreciate the irony in using the term “win” in the context of this blog but just realized that now so will change my statement after this reflection 😂.  The point is that the level of performance of any business is a direct correlation to the diversity, quality and smarts of the people that work there. I have had the luxury of working alongside of some very bright people in my career and some that come from very different backgrounds. The funny thing is that great people tend to follow each other around and there is a gravity that pulls them together. When you are able to find a few of them, more want to join. Working amidst a group of really bright, diverse minds gives you more courage, provides more critical thought and considers new and unique perspectives. I have another blog half written about the change it is taking from me as a leader to more consciously create and then harness the power of diverse teams, so will leave that for another day. Suffice to say that our success has been directly correlated to our level of human talent.

Leading in this challenging environment is hard. When I look back on my leadership journey, this may be the most difficult leadership environment that I will ever face. Will it lead to new thinking, new business models and new strategies for for us to pursue?  Or will this lead to more pressure on near term results, diminished strategic investments, less research and development, less continuous improvement and the pursuit of more efficiency in current business models. I hope it’s the former and I am trying hard to make it so.

The last thing I would offer, and selfishly, is that there are business models that work better in times like this. Business models that favour the creation of long term (i.e. generational) value, that incessantly focus on the customer, that care deeply about the “how” and the impact they have on communities and on people.

It’s never been a better time to be a cooperative ✌️.