How the Right Kind of Leadership Created Positive Credit Union Outcomes from COVID-19

How the Right Kind of Leadership Created Positive Credit Union Outcomes from COVID-19
By Tom Borg © All rights reserved

Bill Lawton, president and CEO of Community Financial Credit Union (CFCU), with 13 locations and 300 employees, knew that having the right mindset was a critical key factor in the strategy they created to work with the COVID-19 experience. As early reports of the pandemic started to appear in China, Lawton and his leadership team sensed they needed to be proactive. They began ordering laptops in the event that they would have to move their teams to work from home. Even before the rest of the banking world was at a point where it started to respond to the changes that were imminent, CFCU began ordering laptops to outfit their team to work from home.
One of the first challenges the credit union leaders interviewed for this article discussed, was how their main concern, like every other credit union, was to keep their team and their credit union members safe.

Sandy Selewski , Chief Human Resources Officer and Coretta Wallace, Chief Experience Officer, both of Zeal Credit Union, agreed that the number one challenge that faced their 174 employees at their 12 locations, was safety. Wallace explained that, “Right from the beginning we were committed to keeping everyone safe and making sure our staff was there for their own families as well.”

After safety was under control, the next two concerns were effectiveness and efficiency. Could a credit union model, of working from a brick-and-mortar address, be successful having a majority of their team members working from home?

Robert LaPalme, President and CEO of Downriver Community Federal Credit Union (DCFCU) shared, “A paradigm was broken for many financial institutions as well as our own. We didn’t know how successful we could be with some of our people working from home. In the past we had refrained from trying it, because we didn’t think it would work. However, with the pandemic forcing us to take this approach, we soon discovered that not all of our people had to be here in the office doing their jobs.”

LaPalme went on to explain that they sent some of their people home with their lap tops and other equipment to use. He added, “We were pleasantly surprised to discover that our team members working from home could do the job very effectively. In some cases, they could get even more work done because they were not getting interrupted as often.”

Jackie Buchanan, President and CEO of Genisys Credit Union shared, “Like most organizations, our eyes were opened to remote working, and we learned that for the most part, our team can be productive, and in some cases, be even more productive than while in the office.”

Carma Peters, President and CEO of Michigan Legacy Credit Union echoed similar thoughts. “We immediately deployed 78% of our staff to work from home. We anticipated that there would be some resistance from some CU members to wearing a mask. And rather than subject our team members to the conflict of dealing with uncooperative members, and the health risks that went along with that, we made the decision to close and stay closed until we were ready. We closed all of our branches on March 16th and did not reopen until September 6th. “

Selewski explained that at Zeal Credit Union they learned that as they pulled together, they were able to be flexible, agile and work from home. Not being as fortunate to have already secured equipment for their teams to work from home, it had to be a gradual process. In the beginning it started at about 35% of the team, then moved towards the 80% number.

At the start of this response to COVID-19, due to the lack of available equipment to purchase lap tops and other equipment, they actually sent the work stations home with their team members. In addition to that, as the pandemic started to hit the Zeal leadership team worked through a number of scenarios to continue to serve their members. Eventually they were able to make sure everyone had webcams so they could continue to communicate face to face. The meetings they usually had in person continued virtually.

LaPalme added, “At Downriver Community Federal Credit Union, something else we learned, is that we needed to communicate internally, an enormous amount of information, with clarity, on a consistent basis. We needed to be sure everyone was receiving the same information at the same time.” When the pandemic hit, they began using, and continue to use, an intranet site for all of their staff.

Wallace added that, “At the beginning of the pandemic, at Zeal, we created a special website for our employees to assist in communicating all information to them. We created an inbox for communication to address all of their questions about the pandemic and safety concerns. We also have continued to use Microsoft Teams™ for communications.” In addition, she also mentioned they are using chat or text through computers or mobile phones, their intranet system, video conference for meetings, emails, and “the good old telephone.”

Selewski stated that, “At Zeal, all along we have been very proactive in communicating all updates to our team members. It has been a number one priority for us. We feel that it is extremely important to be transparent and communicate on a regular basis all of our updates from the government with our team.”
Buchanan went on to say that, “at Genisys, communication is key to keeping the culture together, but I also understand that no matter how hard we try, not everyone will feel we communicated enough, and some will feel we communicated too much. It’s a balancing act for sure, but we are trying to err on the side of too much communication. We are also fully aware that our culture will continue to evolve throughout this pandemic, and we are doing our best to ensure it remains a positive one, where everyone feels they belong, and where they feel comfortable, valued, and safe.”

Then there was the question of whether or not a credit union could work together as a team even though most of their teams were working remotely.
At CFCU, Lawton explained that, “We discovered that by moving to the Zoom platform, we were able to conduct our annual strategic planning meeting. Other than the team building experience, which is best when we were live, we did quite well using our online platform.”
Both CFCU and Zeal’s leadership teams moved to regular virtual visits with each branch.

Wallace added, “At Zeal, we made the decision right from the beginning to substitute physical on-site visits with frequent and open communications with our managers of each branch to check in and see how they and their branch was doing. We also added regular townhall meetings. These were scheduled one in the morning and one in the afternoon, so all team members could attend one of them.”

Wallace stated that “With an emphasis on our philosophy that we care, we cross trained our tellers to do non teller work. We had support people doing other kinds of work. Our team rose to the challenge of cooperation. We had intradepartmental cooperation and interdepartmental cooperation.”
Lawton added, that at CFCU they were able to do twice the mortgages in 2020 than they did in 2019 because they had their people up and using their online mortgage origination system.

They did all this with just ten administrative people who were working on the premises at two administrative locations and everyone else working remotely.
At Zeal, Selewski explained that early on, their team members made the commitment to support each other during this pandemic. Team members were empowered “to go above and beyond and help their credit union members.” Their teams reached out to members to help them become aware of programs they offered that were designed to save them money during the COVID crisis.

Wallace added, “There was an emphasis on pitching in and helping the overall team in ways that were possible. We had to be agile to deal with the increase in loan programs.”

Lawton revealed that one of the most positive outcomes that has happened within CFCU, was that with the transfer to a communication process through Zoom meetings, which resulted in the teams meeting more frequently than in past on-site meetings. More people could also be involved in those meetings because of the convenience of not having to be physically present.

With Lawton at the helm, they formed a pandemic leadership response team. Eventually he was able to delegate the responsibility of running this team to one of the leaders on the team. The leadership team updated their communication strategies and systems with the staff.

Lawton explained that even though they had a disaster plan in place before COVID-19 happened, as the pandemic unfolded, they discovered they had to constantly learn to adapt, adjust and update their strategy to serve their members.

Looking ahead, to the future, Lawton said that, “Another one of the challenges that COVID-19 has presented, is challenging us to rethink how we will continue to build relationships with our members. In the past we focused on in-person visits to build those relationships. With other larger financial institutions that are more heavily focused towards serving their customers through technology, we are beginning to rethink how we can position our credit union as a preferred financial institution.”

The CFCU President and CEO added, “We know we are moving towards a different way of doing business in a post COVID-19 world. One of the challenges we see is that the future will bring is more uncertainty and that will be unsettling for all us. One of the insights I have come to see, is that we have a top-notch team in place that is capable of creating fluidity and certainty, in any uncertainty the future will bring us.”

Buchanan reported that while much of what has happened has created a lot of challenges, they see several silver linings for Genisys, their members and their team.
“Members who traditionally avoided our remote channels needed to learn how to use them. Our branches were moved, to ‘by appointment only’, and many of those members are continuing to use these channels, even though the branches are fully open again.” She went on to say that they saw channels like mobile banking, remote deposit, electronic signature and online account opening increase about 50%. Buchanan added, “This is a great thing for our members, as it saves them valuable time, and keeps them from needing to come into close contact with people during this time.”

Carma Peters, added, “a few years back, according to our Michigan Legacy Credit Union strategic plan, we had remodeled our first branch office to take us into the future of financial services, which also included touchless transaction. We had already signed a contract a with a company to supply us with our video platform, so when COVID-19 hit, we were able to communicate to our staff that we were enacting that plan. We had the systems in place and did not miss a beat.”
She went on to say that they were not surprised when their electronic services increased. Through their research, they had learned the fastest demographic that was adapting to technology was the age group over 50. They discovered their mobile apps use was up 17 percent, desktop was up 3%, and text use up 3%. Across all age groups, their mobile sign-ons in the month of April was up over 40%.

At Zeal Credit Union they are now using interactive activities to keep their teams connected, engaged and their spirits up. In addition to that, they have been hosting emotional wellbeing discussions and workshops.

Peters reported that another benefit to having all of their online communication systems in place was that it allowed them to create opportunities to help their team still feel connected. She explained, “Since many of our team members were working from home, they were not able to see each other and meet face to face, and have the live interaction that goes with it. We were able to compensate somewhat by having a virtual staff development day, a couple of all staff meetings on Zoom, along with the communications I send out on a regular basis.”

Looking to the future, both Selewski and Wallace agreed that at Zeal their strategy would include ongoing remote work. They also added that Lots of communications between all team members on all levels will continue to be online and virtual.

Wallace added that “One of the things at Zeal that we have learned from this experience is that we were able to come together as a team and have a passion to help each other. It is so good to know you are surrounded by a team of likeminded people who want to do the right things and truly make a difference to each other as well as in our members lives. When we do this, we are capable of anything!”

As credit union leaders have recognized, there is no turning back the hands of time to avoid the COVID-19 era. However, by taking advantage of the opportunity it presented, they very likely will be looking back a few years from now and shaking their heads, realizing it could have been one of the best things that ever happened to advance their organizations forward into the future.

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Tom Borg

My name is Tom Borg. I am a business expert who works with small and mid-size companies to effectively and profitably improve customer acquisition and retention. I help these businesses through his use of my consulting, speaking, training and coaching. To ask me a question or to hire me, please contact me at: (734) 404-5909 or email me at: or visit my website at:

Tom Borg