Keeping Your Strategic Plan Out of the Weeds

Keeping Your Strategic Plan Out of the Weeds

Banks and credit unions that engage in strategic planning are committing time and valuable resources towards planning for the future. Your leadership team will likely spend hours at the table hammering out the details of your strategic plan for the next several years.

One of the most important ground rules about strategic planning (and a compelling reason to use an outside facilitator to help conduct the session) is keeping the discussion at a strategic rather than a tactical level. Your strategic planning session must be geared towards discussing, understanding and deciding on a course of action that concentrates on strategic initiatives — big-picture items.

It’s all too easy for a strategic planning discussion to jump the rails and plunge into the high weeds of tactical discussions. By tactical, we mean the daily tasks and jobs, the nuts and bolts of operations at your bank or credit union, that keep things moving. These are certainly important and, if not in place, can sabotage larger strategic initiatives. However, your time at the strategic planning table simply cannot be spent debating and discussing tactical issues.

For example, let’s say your bank or credit union decides an important strategic initiative for the next several years involves branding. Branding is a huge concept that touches every single element of your financial institution. The visual appearance of your brand is certainly a part of this. If you’re not careful, your leadership team could fly off the rails and start a discussion of dress code and how a revised dress code could fit the new brand.

Dress code is important. Dress code matters. Dress code impacts the brand. But, friends, dress code is absolutely the last thing you want to talk about during a strategic planning session. It’s an agonizing, tactical-specific discussion that almost always degenerates to a microscopic level of analysis that it makes a thesis dissertation look simple in comparison. This type of discussion does not empower your strategic planning session. Quite the opposite — it can cripple it.

Dress code is just one example of the dangers of your strategic planning session sinking into the murky waters of tactical items. There are many, many others. The important takeaway here is that in order for your bank or credit union strategic plan to be successful, it must keep its focus on the strategic rather than the tactical.

Strategic Planning Lessons From Fantasy Football

Strategic Planning Lessons From Fantasy Football

I have several loves in my life: my wife, my daughters, my company. Following close behind those top three is my love for fantasy football. Of course my family would probably tell you it’s not that I love fantasy football: I’m addicted to it. The primary league I play in is celebrating its 27th year (you got that right: pretty much same dudes for over a quarter of a century).

There is no better season of the year than fantasy football season. Especially when it’s draft time (which is this time of year). While poring over endless cheat sheets, reviewing favorite websites (that would be, and loading fantasy football software on my computer (yes, there are such programs), I thought there were actually several strategic planning lessons we can learn from fantasy football.

As your credit union or bank prepares for an upcoming planning session, keep these thoughts from fantasy football in mind:

  • Do your research—I can’t tell you how much time I spend researching fantasy football (ask my wife and she’ll joke “too much!”). The people that typically make the playoffs or win their league are usually the ones that do a ton of homework. Show up with a month old magazine cheat sheet and you’re sure to lose. It’s the same way with strategic planning. The more time you put into your session BEFORE it starts, the better session you’ll have. For example, make sure you are reading CUNA’s E-Scan, reviewing blogs like The Financial Brand and answering pre-session questions. The more preparation you conduct for your session, the better outcomes you’ll have.
  • Make your plan flexible—When it comes to my fantasy football draft I always have a plan. Who I’m going to draft and in what round. And invariably, my arch-nemesis and co-commissioner (the Fighting Jewish) always picks the guy right before I do. As a result, I have to be a bit flexible with my plan. It’s no different with your strategic plan as well. You have to make it flexible. You can’t possibly foresee all the things that might develop in the course of your strategy: a key employee leaves, the local economy struggles, a marketing promotion bombs. Be ready for changes with contingencies. The more flexibility you put into your plan, the better results you’ll see.
  • Identify sleepers—If you want to win in fantasy football you have to pick players no one else thinks is going to do all that great. In fantasy football terms those are guys known as “sleepers.” If you want to win with your strategic plan you have to pick ideas and tactics that others in your market may not be doing. If your competition zigs, you zag. It’s the classic Blue Ocean Strategy For example, rather than doing sales and service training like every other financial institution, maybe you do engagement training. Or rather than doing the same loan and deposit campaigns you do every year you conduct a marketing audit to gain fresh ideas. The more unique you make your plan, the better growth you’ll have.

Another cool thing about fantasy football is how it builds community (something your credit union or bank should do internally and externally). Through the years our league has been there for marriages, divorces, births and more. One of our members passed away after a battle with cancer a few years ago. But through it all, we’ve had this love not just for football but for each other

And if you want to love your next planning session, then remember these lessons from fantasy football.

Strategic Adjustments for Year-End

Strategic Adjustments for Year-End

Year-end? It’s just August! But yes, you read that title correctly: this August post is talking about the year-end. More specifically, strategic adjustments you might need to make.

As we tell our planning clients all the time: strategic planning is a process not a date on a calendar. In essence, you should be doing strategic planning throughout the year.

As the dog days of August hit, here are some issues you should examine to ensure you are making the necessary adjustments for year-end:

  • Celebrate gains—It’s always a good time to reflect on your successes. Many executives and managers tend to focus on what is NOT being done or where we’ve missed the mark. Before doing that type of examination look at your accomplishments first. Did loans grow more than expected, did one branch perform exceptionally well, did you bring in a rock star new hire? Making adjustments starts with celebrating your successes.
  • Examine gaps—While success is wonderful, odds are your year has not been perfect. What gaps are you seeing with your strategy and goals? For example, maybe certain marketing promotions didn’t succeed, perhaps there is a significant brand gap or it’s possible your budget numbers are not looking they way your projected them. During this analysis, don’t just identify what the gaps are, but rather why they exist. Making adjustments means examining where you are falling short.
  • Study graphs—What are the trends with your credit union or bank? Are you opening more accounts than you are closing? Is loan growth up, down or flat? What about net income and branch performance? This is the perfect time of year to study the first two quarters. You have the data, so examine it. What story does the data tell? Making adjustments means analyzing all the information you have and pulling out nuggets of truth.
  • Set a guide—Where do you want to go next? Many financial institutions are going to spend a ton of time in Q3 and Q4 on their strategic plan for next year. This is an ideal time of season to put in place a direction for where you to want to go. This is your roadmap. Your compass. But don’t just think about next year. There are still many days, weeks and months to accomplish this year’s goals. Making adjustments means revising your map.

The year is more than halfway complete. What adjustments are you going to make ensure you end the year strong?

Key Questions to Ask Before Your Next Strategic Planning Session

Key Questions to Ask Before Your Next Strategic Planning Session

We are now in the dog days of summer, which means many banks and credit unions are thinking ahead about their strategic planning sessions in the fall. As you begin to put together your thoughts and expectations for these critically important days of planning, consider the following questions that may not have come to mind before.

These are questions you should ask of yourself and your strategic planning team before the meeting, so everyone has plenty of time to contribute thoughtful replies. Come to your strategic planning’s table session with the answers to help kick-start a dynamic meeting.

  • What is the “elephant in the room” issue no one wants to talk about? Every bank or credit union has at least one, if not more. What is that one issue/challenge of which everyone is aware but about which no one wants to talk? Successful strategic planning sessions require honesty – honest talk and honest answers. For your strategic planning session to be successful, your group must honestly tackle this question (or questions).
  • What is the one thing only our financial institution can do for its consumers? In other words, spend some time thinking about that one special thing that only your bank or credit union can do for consumers. And if there isn’t one special thing that only your financial institution can do, that should spur some serious strategic planning discussion.
  • What are our consumers’ pain points? This is another tricky question to answer (especially if you’re doing it honestly). Here you are considering every point of consumer interaction with your financial institution (in the lobby, on the phone, via email, during the loan application process, etc.). Chances are, you already have a good idea where the hiccups are in the system from personal experience, listening to your staff or from consumer feedback. Identify these pain points during your strategic planning session and create initiatives to tackle them.

Your strategic planning session must feature an open dialogue in which every participant feels free to air his or her honest answers to questions. Hopefully the three questions discussed here have given you new lines along which to think when it comes to conversations at your next strategic planning session.

Three Ideas to Improve Your Next Strategic Planning Session

Three Ideas to Improve Your Next Strategic Planning Session

Note: This article originally ran on CU Insight.

Traditionally, strategic planning sessions for credit unions occurs in the fall. However, after partnering with dozens of credit unions as a facilitator on strategic plans over the last few years, we can safely say that a growing number both plan and conduct their sessions at other times of the year.

We remind our clients regularly that strategic planning is a process, not a date on a calendar. Therefore, any time of the year is a good time to take a look at ways to improve your next strategic planning session.

Credit unions spend a great deal of time and energy making the commitment and investment in strategic planning. During those crucial days together, executive leadership teams and members of the Board of Directors contribute ideas and dialogue that will both guide and direct the credit union for years to come. Consider the following ideas to improve your next strategic planning session.

  • Invite a more job-diverse team. Typically, strategic planning sessions are attended by members of the executive leadership team and the Board of Directors. For your next strategic planning session, however, consider assembling a more job or role-diverse mix. Try to include younger employees (think Millennials) and those you have identified as your “star performers.” Not only will a more eclectic team contribute potentially game-changing ideas, you are also grooming them for future success by making them feel like an important part of the credit union.
  • Give your members a voice at the strategic planning table. Not necessarily in person – however, you can provide invaluable member feedback in the strategic planning process by conducting interviews and surveys beforehand. Quiz members about what’s important to them in a financial institution and what they expect. Present this information during the strategic planning session and, with actual member input, you’ll find yourself more likely to act upon ideas important to the membership and less flying blind. One exercise we do is “The Empty Chair Exercise.” Place an empty chair somewhere in the meeting room as a reminder that if a member were in that chair, what would they tell us?
  • Clarify the roles of strategic planning and tactical/budgeting. These are very different functions. Strategic planning takes a look at your credit union’s directives from a 30,000-foot level over the next several years. We call it strategic for a reason, rather than tactical. Tactical goes into the daily operations of the credit union. The same can be said for budgeting. If you aren’t careful, a strategic planning session can rapidly devolve into a tactical/budgeting snipe hunt. If everybody on your team focuses too much on numbers and tactics, you are likely to miss the forest for the trees and steer your strategic planning session straight into the confusing high grass of tactics and budget.

A strategic planning session is like a good map or GPS in that it provides reassuring guidance and direction for your credit union for years to come. By assembling a more role-diverse strategic planning team, giving members a voice at the table and clarifying the roles of strategic versus tactical/budgeting, you can help ensure your credit union’s next strategic planning session provides a terrific return on that investment.

Insanity in Strategic Planning

Insanity in Strategic Planning

You have no doubt heard the saying that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Why is it, then, that so many financial institutions fall into this trap? To be fair, it isn’t just banks or credit unions. Many businesses fall into this trap. The longer you do that, the harder it is to dig yourself out.

The same can be said of strategic planning. How many times do you review the same data, come to the same conclusions and make the same goals that don’t get met? That’s insanity. It’s insane to spend all that time and effort to accomplish so little or even worse, move backward.

Strategic planning is meant to stretch your thinking. If done correctly, it is designed to make your leadership team think outside the box, dream big and push your financial institution to step outside its comfort zone. That doesn’t mean making decisions on a whim. You still have to be responsible stewards of your customers’ or members’ money. It means doing some things differently.

Stop doing what doesn’t’ work

You definitely have to review your financial institution’s performance from the previous year. What are you doing with that information once it is reviewed? You should be using that information to decide not only what you should continue doing but also what you should stop doing. If performance was poor, go back several years to see if that is a trend. If it’s costing your financial institution money and producing negative results, you either need to stop doing it or figure out how to do it better. Don’t keep doing it the same way. Remember, that’s insanity.

Use new research and/or tools

When we conduct planning sessions for clients, we incorporate research and tools not just from the financial institution we’re working with but outside sources, as well. Some of those tools include environmental scans, our own industry scan, SWOT and Five Star Credit Unions, among others. Research you might consider includes Net Promoter Score, member surveys, focus groups and any business data that can help you make responsible decisions on where to build branches, how to expand your field of membership or customer base and the like.

Dream big

This is an element missing from so many strategic planning sessions. If you never dream big…if you never envision the seemingly impossible, you may never get there. Earmark a small amount of time on your agenda and give everyone in the planning session an opportunity to answer the question, “If we could do anything we wanted to do as a financial institution, what would it be?” Sometimes a dream isn’t as far from reality as it appears once you start examining what needs to be done to get there.

Doing what you’ve always done is sure to get you the result you’ve always gotten. Do something different during your next strategic planning session. Use new tools. Look at research in new ways. Dream big. You might be surprised at how far that gets you.


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