Working through management challenges at the National Credit Union Administration

June 25, 2013

The economic crisis that unfolded in 2008 and 2009 had a severe impact on all of the nation’s financial institutions, including credit unions. Debbie Matz, the chairman of the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA), regulates more than 6,700 federally insured credit unions. During the crisis, she instituted a number of reforms and oversaw the raising of nearly $30 billion from the sale of securitized notes to provide liquidity to the system.

Matz spoke with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership. His organization works with NCUA’s leadership team to help them improve employee satisfaction and commitment.

Credit: Sam Kittner/Kittner.com NCUA Chairman Debbie Matz and Partnership for Public Service President and CEO Max Stier
Credit: Sam Kittner/Kittner.com
NCUA Chairman Debbie Matz and Partnership for Public Service President and CEO Max Stier

How would you explain the National Credit Union Administration to the American public?

We protect the deposits of the almost 95 million Americans who have accounts at federally insured credit unions. It's an industry with $1 trillion in assets. But it's one of those jobs, like many other federal jobs, which, when you do your job well, it's invisible and nobody knows you’re doing it. No one has ever lost a penny at a federally insured credit union. That is our best reward — we are doing our job well and federally insured credit unions are safe and sound.

NCUA was the most improved mid-size agency in the 2012 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings, increasing its score nearly 11 points since 2009. How are you engaging and energizing your employees? 

During my first week on the job, I called the president of the National Treasury Employees Union and asked her to work in partnership with us. We set up a Partnership Council and went from having a very hostile relationship with the union to having a really positive, constructive one. I also visited employees in each of our regions and talked about what they would like to change. One of the things that I heard over and over again was that they didn't know what was going on and they had no way to be part of the decision-making process, so we set up an internal communications working group and hold quarterly webinars for employees. At every opportunity, we're trying to open communications. We ask employees to tell us when there’s a problem, and sometimes when they tell us, we can actually fix it. I feel like that’s a big reason why morale here has improved.

What leadership challenges have you faced?

We learned that some of our executives were totally immersed in program issues but hadn't had leadership training in quite a while. So we provide a tremendous amount of training for our staff at all levels. We've also focused more on succession planning by assessing who is really qualified to step up and what training they need in order to move to the next level.

What are some of your key management issues?

NCUA employees are very committed to the mission and tend to have long tenures with the agency. So when I got here, we didn't have much opportunity for fresh eyes and for other points of view. We have started opening most of our vacant positions now to either all sources or government-wide so that we can attract people who may bring a different perspective. I think that's really important to an organization. Another challenge is maintaining a diverse workforce. It's nice to see that the changes we've put in place have had positive results.

How do you encourage employee feedback?

We have to make the process non-threatening. Employees now know that we’ll listen to whatever they tell us and respond positively when we can, but it took time to build up trust. At first I'd go to staff meetings and no one would say a word. Now I feel like the staff really has the sense that we will listen to them, because we have made meaningful changes as a result of suggestions from staff meetings and my quarterly employee webinars. And if employees don’t want to share their suggestions with me, they can communicate with our Partnership Council or the internal communications group.

How has the current budget situation affected your agency?

We've been operating under a pay freeze for several years, which has been very difficult for our employees. It’s a tremendous morale problem. But we are looking for other ways to recognize their work and to show employees appreciation.

What do you wish you had known before becoming chairman of the NCUA and what advice would you leave your successors?

I wish I had known just how severe the recession’s impact would be on credit unions, because it was very severe. We had a long list of troubled institutions and really worked night and day to make sure those credit unions didn't fail. It was an enormous challenge. I would want my successor to recognize that the NCUA staff is extremely bright and talented, and I believe exemplifies the best of public service. They work hard every day to keep credit unions safe and sound, and they do a terrific job.

Read also:

The federal agencies that rank best and worst on leadership

Improving the Department of Transportation: A conversation with Ray LaHood

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