Positioning Your Credit Union as a Thought Leader

Wouldn’t you like your CU to be known for innovation, leadership, and talent?

As community-minded organizations, credit unions can naturally break out as thought leaders. This buzzy term fits right in when it comes to credit unions and their missions to provide the highest level of personal financial services; to educate members in friendly and professional ways; and to encourage the financial well-being and success of their communities. In order for credit unions to flourish, their members must flourish. What does this mean? Credit unions must always be looking for ways to build member loyalty and enhance the value of membership.

Okay, so that is no small task. Ensuring your credit union thrives takes work. But it can happen naturally, as long as your credit union remains focused on ways to adjust and update its core products and services. As always with credit unions, it goes back to members. The services a credit union provides are part of everyday life for members. While there is a dash of the ordinary in this—bills to pay, checks to deposit—it is in the everyday that life happens. And it is often with the help of a trusted credit union that a member is able to find the financial resources to go to school, get married, build a home, and cross off the milestones of life.

So, how can one credit union provide all this and stay ahead of the curve? That “natural” updating and retooling to provide the best for members can happen—with thought leadership.

What is Thought Leadership Anyway?

There are many ways to define thought leadership. As one leadership expert demonstrated in Forbes: “What we’ve found is that some people take a very expansive view of the term, wrapping internal strategy and corporate culture into their definition. Other individuals are more constrained in their definition. Bluntly, there are many definitions of the term.” Taking this into account, the writer suggests it takes a multi-part definition to unpack both the “brilliance” and “commercial” aspects of thought leadership.

Meanwhile, the Cambridge University Press does offer one definition: “An expert on a particular subject whose ideas and opinions influence other people, especially in business.” Looking for another way to say it? Macmillan Thesaurus suggests simply “recognized authority.” This is a quick and easy way to get the head around thought leadership, but we would be remiss if we didn’t advocate for considering the role of creativity and ingenuity in thought leadership.

It may surprise you to learn that thought leadership is not a totally new term. Even though it may seem like something dreamed up in the halls of a university by top MBA candidates and is frequently, its roots are deeper. In his day, the 19th-century American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson was even hailed for having “the wizard power of a thought-leader.”

However, your credit union can be a thought leader without poetry. And today, the phrase “thought leadership” is sometimes dismissed as business jargon or a meaningless corporate phrase. In some cases, this might be so. But we think there’s still something to be learned from thought leaders—especially when they represent a niche or industry that holds meaning to you.

Think Small

To be a thought leader might seem like something that takes big action. Thought leadership is all about revolutionary ideas, shaking up the marketplace, and being a disruptor, right? Not necessarily.

chalkboard with writing that reads spelling think outside of the box

Instead of starting with an overwhelming to-do list, we advise you to start small. Sometimes, many small actions and micro goals can add up to greater change overall. For credit unions, thought leadership does not have to start with tearing down old practices and starting from scratch. Expectations, technology, and habits are constantly evolving. Your credit union can evolve as well—bit by bit and over time. In doing so, your credit union makes healthy change part of its DNA.

In fact, your credit union may already be engaging in thought leadership. As a credit union expert, what have you experienced in your industry in the past year or so? Did you see CUs adapt to incorporate more virtual services—and was your CU part of that change or watching from the bleachers? Thought leadership involves being aware of industry trends, competition, and opportunities. And, in turn, knowing when to engage with those trends or take a risk.

If your credit union is hoping to become a thought leader, a natural first step is to do your homework. Research. Subscribe to industry news. Network with colleagues at your CU and throughout the financial services. Keep an eye on what other industries are doing. Remember: Good habits take time and practice to develop. Exercising thought leadership is a workout for the mind and, like physical exercise, becomes easier the more you do it. 

So, What Makes You the Expert?

What do credit unions do better than anyone else? And what does your credit union do better than anyone else?

Whatever the answer is, that is what makes your credit union special. It is also what your credit union officers are experts in. This is how your credit union becomes a thought leader. Think of it this way: It is one thing to want your credit union to be a financial services expert. But it’s something else to become an expert on, say, mortgage lending in the Midwest, personal finances for first-generation families, or loans for women-owned small businesses. In being able to zero in on what your credit union does well, you are learning how to best brand and represent your credit union.

When you discover your niche and lean into that, you make it your job to be the best in that special area. And it is worth noting that individual thought leaders at your credit union sit at any level, not only in upper management. If you are a credit union marketer or communicator, look for the people on staff, in executive leadership roles, or even advisory boards. Discover the people who have a passion for and excel in certain areas and help them shine.