Credit Unions: the Fight to Stay Relevant


This weekend, the Underground Collision is crashing Money 20/20, a financial conference in Las Vegas. According to the website, it’s the world’s biggest, boldest, and best event covering payments and financial services innovation. All the cool kids will be there. On Saturday, as part of this conference, I get to moderate a debate between Randy Karnes, CEO of CU*Answers, and Sarah Snell Cooke, of Cooke Consulting Solutions.

On Wednesday, the 23rd of October, Karnes and Cooke posted an Underground Collision debate, “Do Thought Leaders Create Doubt About Credit Unions’ Future?”

The quick answers? Randy Karnes: yes; Sarah Snell Cooke: no.

The Karnes/Cooke debate will cover credit union executives and situational awareness, a topic that reminded me of a great lesson I learned on the latter.

Watch for flames

In addition to my job at the National Association of Credit Union Service Organizations (NACUSO), I am also a volunteer EMT and soon to be firefighter. Recently, I attended a National Volunteer Firefighters Council event, where I sat in on a session titled, “Situational Awareness in a Fire.”

The speaker was amazing (though pretty blunt), and during this session, he showed a video of two firefighters whose only job was to vent the roof of a burning house. The firefighters were so wrapped up in dealing with the challenges they were facing, they didn’t see the flames beginning to encroach on the far end of the roof. By the time they overcame those challenges, ready to do the job they were assigned, the roof was already completely engulfed, and the fire was quickly heading towards them. Their original task was useless now, because the situation had completely changed – they needed a new plan.

The speaker then added, “When you’re in a stressful situation is when you need your brain the most, and that’s when it’s going to likely be at its worst.” While very helpful for firefighters, this also applies to us here in the credit union industry. We need to train our bodies to calm our minds and be constantly aware of what is going on around us, because it’s changing by the minute. Don’t get so fixated on your job, that you don’t see the flames licking at your feet.

Ironically, we often characterize ourselves as firefighters in the credit union space. Many times, we’ve used the excuse for why progress has not been made as this: “I didn’t have time to work on that project – I’ve been putting out fires all day!”

The opening statements

So how will the debate discuss situational awareness?

Randy, in his opening statement, says, “An all too common conversation I have or email I get these days is, ‘Randy, I have officially entered the frantic zone! I am overwhelmed by the sense that the future is so complex, moving further and further ahead of where we are today, and is just too big for us to face. Every meeting with a consultant, every review by a regulator, every time my staff or board members tell me what they learned at their last industry event, and every time I look up and down the road, I feel defeated and ready to drive my credit union directly into the waiting arms of a merger partner. And somehow it feels like that was the design. The industry is herding me, and the thought leadership themes all seem to be the same melody.’”

The leadership is accurately aware of the situation and how it is changing around them, but is their brain functioning in a manner that is beneficial?

Cooke notes, “The cacophony of ‘you need to do this or you’ll fail’ is growing; there’s no doubt about that. At the same time, credit union leaders do have to develop and execute on strategies that will move them forward, ranging everywhere from digital transformation to collaborative partnerships that can help fill some gaps. That’s why companies like CU*Answers, Mitchell Stankovic and Associates, and mine [Cooke Consulting Solutions] exist!”

Eyes on the future

What they are both clearly pointing out is the need to stay relevant. The fact is in business, as in a fire or in a medical emergency, you have to be aware of everything around you because the situation never stays the same. Don’t let yourself get distracted by the task at hand, only to see your whole world go up in flames. A perfect example is Blockbuster and their inability to see Netflix as a threat (they even declined an offer to buy Netflix), or Kodak and their decision to not acknowledge that film was soon to be a thing of the past.

I’m excited to be around people that are doing things to make sure the entire credit union movement doesn’t just survive, but will thrive in the years to come. Stay tuned – debate updates to come!


  • Denise Wymore

    Denise started her credit union career over 30 years ago as a Teller for Pacific NW Federal Credit Union in Portland, Oregon. She moved up and around the org. chart working in every department except for IT. She landed the VP Marketing at First Tech CU where she promptly changed her title to VP Cultivation. In 2000 she went on the road to help credit unions tell their story, both internally and externally. Denise joined NACUSO in 2016 where she develops membership and helps CUSOs tell their story.

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