CU Water Cooler

Shifting Baselines

Jill HulsComment

This December, I started a book and read it. From start to finish. It was J.B. MacKinnon’s “The Once and Future World.” It was a beautiful read, felt close to my heart and beliefs, and really got me thinking about shifting baselines. Basically, baselines are points of reference in how we see the world based on an individual or generation’s experience. “Shifting Baselines Syndrome” is a term used to describe the small changes which are forever happening which seem minor, until they form a larger reality. We generally know they are happening, yet somehow lack the ability to see the impact of the changes in aggregate across a long time period and struggle to understand the meaning or overall picture of how all of the small pieces have added up to or will add up to a large shift in our reality. And generally a large shift that is very difficult, maybe impossible to reverse, and possibly left us in an uncomfortable position. 

In the book, MacKinnon talks about shifting baselines in the context of nature and the world we share. Example: the baseline we share today about nature is significantly lower both in terms of diversity and volume of nature in our lives than has been in the past, yet we think it is normal. MacKinnon suggests that part of the reason this degradation has happened may be our inability to understand the overall impact of slowly shifting baselines. What’s one less bee until we struggle to pollinate blossoms in China—we always pollinated by hand didn’t we? What’s one less bison until they no longer roam free on the Prairies—there weren’t bison running around the Prairies that I remember? What’s one less whale as the carbon cycle becomes an issue? (this is actually a fascinating story… Google it… I dare you). 

I started to think about baselines in day to day life and my mind wandered to my Grandma. My Grandma is 95 years old and still kicking it on the farm. A real trooper who had her first surgery ever this summer and flew through it like a 65 year old. Once when she was about 90, she told me she couldn’t really remember when she became old. She said sometimes she looked in the mirror and expected someone different; a younger version of who was looking back at her. I remember thinking that was so surreal; I mean obviously to me (and pretty much everyone else beside centurions) she was old. For her, the baseline was always changing ever so slowly that she usually felt like just the same person she pretty much always was. To her, while she knew she was getting older, one day she woke up and really, truly, whole heartedly, realized she was old. 

Then I started to think about shifting baselines in relation to business and credit unions. A couple of examples where I really think credit unions have nailed it, are ahead of the curve, and deserve to celebrate: 

1. Employee engagement and experience 

Our co-operative values have helped us to drive a culture of having employee development and input front and centre to our operations. I feel like this is generally reflected in our compensation, our benefits packages, our work environments, and diverse input to business direction and decisions. I believe that the co-operative business model was absolutely ahead of the time for employee engagement and has kept us ahead of the curve in understanding how to engage employees. 

2. Member service 

We go the extra mile to help our members and build trust. Period. I feel like we always knew trust with members was key to a successful and sustainable business (after all, it is the members’ business!), and we work to never sacrifice caring about them as people. We sensed the shift of trust in the financial industry and fiercely wore the badge of member service and building trust knowing that it set us apart in loyalty. And it has. Across the board we lead in trust and loyalty scores versus our competitors. 

I also started to think about places where baselines shifted, and we seem to have missed them until we were (or are) shall we say “surprised at our reflection in the mirror.” A couple of thoughts… 

1. Young members 

I was reminded of a particularly hectic morning at our household where we where my son was asking about a mobile app for Android at our credit union. It went something like this: 

M: “Mommmmm…….when is the credit union getting an Android app?” 

Me: “I don’t know. Just logon to online banking. And please put on your shoes. Why aren’t you wearing a jacket? It’s -20C!” 

M: “Uuuuuggghhhhggghhhhh….that is so inconvenient.” 

Me: “Really? Seriously? The jacket?” 

M: “No, the app thing. Why can’t you have the same convenience as a bank?” 

Q: “Hey M, if you need help with your money, you should go talk to Grandma Esther. She works at a bank (RBC).” 

Me: “What? And Q, what’s on your face?” 

Q: “Yah, Grandma Esther helps people with their money. M should go talk to her. I am pretty sure I washed my face. No wait, then I ate some chocolate chips.” 

Me: “So, what do you think I do Q? And where did you get the chocolate chips? That’s not breakfast; actually you know what, who cares. At least you ate something. Can we get in the car?” 

Q: “You work at the credit union. I can’t find my backpack.” 

Me: “Right. And what does a credit union do? Here is your backpack.” 

Q: “I have no idea what a credit union does. Thanks for finding my backpack.” 

As a system it seems to now be common knowledge that we need to retain and grow young members for our sustainability. How come we didn’t notice that we were missing that connection and have action plans in place before our average age of members was hovering around 50? It was in our own backyards (or in my case—house)! Did we just see some grey hair and not really connect the dots that combing in some hair dye wasn’t going to cut it? 

2. Developing young leaders 

Anyone ever heard “When I was your age, I never had the opportunity you have” or “It took me 15 years to get to *insert job here,* so young people should be grateful and patient” or “young people are so entitled, they always seem to want to be involved and have a say” or “how can you not know what you want, do the job that’s asked of you” or “OMG, we have 30% of our workforce retiring in the next two years… how the heck are we going to transfer that knowledge in that timeframe?” 

Again, it now seems to be common knowledge that for business sustainability we must focus on the development of young leaders, building skill and capability quickly, and transferring knowledge from our awesome experienced teams to the next generation. How come we didn’t notice the relevance of this demographic shift sooner? Why didn’t (and frankly still don’t) more credit unions have formal leadership development, trainee and mentorship programs? 

3. Consistent and focused execution to a vision 

The questions and comments might not be exactly the same… but how many of you have heard these questions or something similar in your business: 

  • How come our competitors can’t beat us in trust and loyalty scores, but we aren’t beating them in financial results?
  • Why don’t more members have our credit cards?
  • How come our wealth book isn’t growing fast enough? 
  • How can we diversify and supplement our interest income as these tight spreads suck? 

The baseline view of our members will let us know what they want and will drive our business for us has shifted. Last year at the CU Water Cooler Symposium, I felt I heard a theme around defining a vision that fits for your members, and then working hard to align and streamline every aspect of your business to that vision. The stories shared themes that said doing this is hard, it’s messy, and there will be things that don’t work out right. There will need to be tough decisions; really tough decisions. Then I heard, that once on this journey and momentum is gained, the answers to the questions as per above come, traction happens, and results rise. A couple of examples of those stories for me are Tim Vandenburg and Monopoly, Vancity and impact, and Verity Credit Union and moms. In the competitive landscape we operate in, my view is that focus and consistency across all aspects of our business to a vision aligned to members is table stakes for success, is pretty tough, and will produce the greatest rewards and results. What would credit union industry results look like today if all credit unions had noticed this baseline shift and its impact? What if we all had plans in place which were executed a decade ago? What holds us back from this today? Who is doing it well in our arena from your view? 

In the end, I thought about a line I have heard more than once from a leader I deeply respect, “The credit union with the best people wins.” I don’t disagree. Seems like a smart line, makes a lot of sense. People are companies after all and it seems the best people equals the best companies. Now I am starting to wonder what makes, “the best people.” Is one of the attributes the ability to see shifting baselines and leading the companies they are a part of to where the baseline for our members, our credit unions, our employees, our business environments are moving to before our competitors connect the dots of the large shift? Like Gretzky was at the puck before it was there making him an amazing player and leading his teams to success. Like having the skill to notice that we have 10 less bees today than we did yesterday and knowing it’s something to notice and build plans around. Like looking at the business and noticing the wrinkles before we wake up at 90 and realizing we are old. 

Love to hear your thoughts. 


Jill Huls is a branch manager with Conexus Credit Union in Saskatchewan, Canada. She's an alumni member of the Saskatchewan Young Leaders Committee and was a top five finalist in the 2012 CUES Next Top Credit Union Exec competition.