Though the executive team sets the course, mid-level leaders must be prepared for strategic execution.

Adapted from the white paper “The Missing Link in Strategic Execution: Developing Mid-Level Leaders,” from DDJ Myers. This white paper includes a description of the eight characteristics of strategically oriented mid-level leaders. 

The environment in which credit unions compete for members’ business has become increasingly crowded and complex, with threats posed by emerging rivals, new business models and the added burden of ever-increasing regulation. Maintaining a shared focus on strategic execution has never been more daunting or more essential.

To address this confluence of challenges head on, CUES member Steve Elkins, president/CEO of $1.2 billion DuPont Community Credit Union, Waynesboro, Va., says, “I think it’s imperative for all credit unions to focus on leadership development just outside the executive team, so they can effectively capture and leverage the growth opportunities before them.”

Barry Smith, DuPont CCU’s SVP/chief lending officer, agrees and suggests that development of mid-level leaders should encompass the “abilities to think critically without restraints” so that emerging leaders are prepared to help their organizations set the best course.

“The solutions to problems and the strategic direction to seize opportunities are sometimes one and the same,” Smith says. “We need to be able to assess when a problem is a problem or when a problem might be an opportunity—that’s where critical thinking lives.”

The current and future roles of mid-level leaders are central to solving problems and realizing gains in member service and relationships. As a foundation for developing their leadership competencies, their roles, contributions and accountabilities should be clearly communicated, embraced and enacted for the organization to run on all cylinders.

This is why our approach at DDJ Myers, through our leadership development programs and consulting, focuses on facilitating a higher level of strategic execution within organizations. A key step in that direction is having the board, management and leadership teams endorse a thoroughly vetted organizing principle that speaks to the long-term impact the credit union desires to have in the market. This OP transcends quarterly or short-term concerns to underscore the organization’s commitment that will govern all strategies, tactics and measures of success, including leadership development initiatives.

Strategic execution is elevated when leadership can frame the allocation of precious resources (capital, labor, etc.) against the OP. The organization’s priorities—and often members’ priorities—subjugate short-term goals and career advancement, because people have “bought in” to all that the OP encompasses. They know that if they do the right thing, they will be recognized appropriately. In practice, this could mean that an executive or line of business offers to support another’s priorities, possibly compromising individual short-term goals to reach the OP faster or in a more purposeful manner.

For organizations to reach a high level of staff engagement in their OP, their leaders need the skills to effectively communicate opportunities, concerns and accountabilities. (This means not relying on an inspirational poster in the breakroom as the primary means to convey vision and mission.) Strategic execution isn’t a final destination or static state of being. It’s an ongoing phenomenon that is attained when leaders have the insight, patience and commitment to engage in the right—and sometimes hard—conversations in an objective and dignified manner.

Other leadership attributes that support strategic execution are the abilities to envision new possibilities and to frame or “sell” those ideas in a manner that compels colleagues to change their priorities and behaviors. Leaders must also be open to and willing to solicit new ideas that may be better than their own. Reinforcing ego is not part of the formula.

High-performing organizations do not leave the development of these leadership competencies to chance, but rather commit to it as a strategic imperative. A proactive commitment to nurturing these abilities in mid-level talent also helps take on another growing challenge in the credit union movement: the vacuum of leadership that retirement and transitions will soon create if not anticipated and addressed.

If unmanaged, executive and CEO positions must be filled with outside talent. While there is nothing inherently wrong with attracting and retaining external executive talent, the board is responsible for effectively facilitating the transfer of leadership from one CEO to the next. Along the same lines, a key executive responsibility is grooming future leaders across business units. An investment in succession planning and leadership development demonstrates to talented staff that their career advancement is an organizational priority.

In support of transformative leadership development for mid-level talent, the CEO and other executives must be invested and play integral roles in the learning that supports their team’s ongoing professional growth. This approach stands in contrast to directing HR to “teach strategic thinking” in one- or two-day training sessions using a stand-alone module or method.

To advance the corporate culture to new levels of strategic execution, mid-level leaders need to learn new concepts related to communication and collaboration, with ongoing opportunities to practice their application, receive support, integrate feedback and try again. Intentional and committed practice, generative feedback and repetition create the mastery of leadership competencies that can’t be developed by reading about them on a PowerPoint slide. The advancement of mid-level talent’s strategic orientation and tactical execution has to match, if not advance beyond, current executives’ capabilities.

This is no small order, yet it’s a strategic play for tomorrow. It lands on the shoulders of executives and the board of directors to prioritize the development of those who will carry the torch into the organization’s future—by committing to the development of mid-level talent as a strategic priority.

Peter Myers is senior vice president of CUESolutions provider DDJ Myers Ltd., San Diego, Calif. Learn how to become a CUESolutions provider by emailing Kari Sweeney.

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