When Elevations Credit Union was named a 2020 Baldrige Award recipient last November, the Colorado-based nonprofit became the first financial services organization to earn the prestigious Presidential award twice. (Elevations first earned a Baldrige Award in 2014.)
During the Baldrige Program’s 32nd Quest for Excellence® Conference in April 2021, Elevations President and CEO Gerry Agnes shared insights and highlights of his organization’s leadership practices and “Baldrige journey” to excellence. The high-performing credit union holds more than $3 billion in assets, employs more than 600 people, and serves more than 150,000 members (customers).
Established in 1953 to serve the faculty and staff of the University of Colorado Boulder as a cooperative savings and credit provider, Elevations (originally named the U. of C. Federal Credit Union) started with less than $100 in assets and 12 members. Yet the organization was designed to exist in perpetuity.
“Holding true to that design, we’ve evolved and grown,” Agnes said, referring in part to the credit union’s extension of membership beyond the university to communities along the Front Range of Colorado.
He explained that, as a nonprofit, member-owned credit union, Elevations provides full-service banking services and reinvests its earnings in member service and community development.
“When people bank with us, they can see their money at work right where they live,” said Agnes. “They benefit. Their family and friends benefit. Their companies benefit. And our communities thrive.”
People think of Baldrige primarily as a management framework, said Agnes, but he stressed that it can be used to inspire an organization’s transformation. “We learned it’s about organizational culture and leadership—beyond systems, strategies, and tactics,” he said.
Regarding organizational culture, Agnes said that Baldrige complemented the credit union’s “unique mix of learning, caring, purpose, and drive for results.”
On leadership, Agnes said, “Our most important responsibility was to create an environment where people can be brutally honest with each other, at every level of the organization. The discipline ensures crystal clarity about how we work together, and that strengthens alignment.”
He added, “One of the most important outcomes of the Baldrige discipline is how it drives you to deal in truths and address the brutal truths that often can be barriers to excellence.”
According to Agnes, the “perfect time” for any organization to get started using the Baldrige framework is “right now.”
“The lessons of past recessions and market dynamics suggest that the most challenging times are the ones that present the greatest opportunities,” Agnes said. “Even small organizations can compete against some of the largest in the world by understanding those opportunities and making the most of them.”
“A lot of people prefer to hunker down and ride out [an economic] downturn, while others use it as an inflection point to emerge stronger,” he said. “We chose to do that in the throes of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, when many lenders retreated from the mortgage market. We weren’t a significant mortgage lender at the time, but we saw the opportunity to leverage our strengths against the weakness in the market… . Within just a few short years, we outpaced much larger, national competitors in mortgage origination volume in our area. We’ve continued to thrive through subsequent cycles. Today we’re Colorado’s number-one credit union residential mortgage lender and the number-one residential mortgage lender in our primary market.”
When an organization chooses to work through its toughest challenges, it can emerge stronger, Agnes pointed out. To do so, he advised leaders to
Agnes gave the following example from an early phase in Elevations’ Baldrige journey:
A member of our team raised issues with our core system and how bad it was. Everyone in the room got very quiet, because they knew it was a big, thorny problem that would take 15% of our accumulated capital to fix. I listened, and started asking others about it to learn more. People in our call center said it was terrible—that to serve our members, it was as if they had to know code to find the information they needed. Then I went to IT, the group most likely to extoll virtues of the system, and even they said, ‘It’s awful!’ So we overhauled the system.
While the changes were not cheap or easy, Agnes considers the undertaking a momentous step forward, for him as a leader and for the organization’s improvement journey: “The defining moments of leadership are those when you act on difficult truths,” he said. “They might be painful, costly, and inconvenient. Let them teach you humility, but don’t let them exhaust your resolve. This is the fortitude you stand to gain on the Baldrige journey, when the unadulterated truth becomes an inflection point—an opportunity to achieve greater things.”
Agnes cited the following among top results Elevations achieved during the first part of its Baldrige journey (leading to its 2014 Baldrige Award):
He also shared results Elevations has achieved in recent years, prior to its 2020 Baldrige Award:
Agnes emphasized these “key takeaways” from his leadership presentation:
Pete Reicks, Elevations’ director of performance excellence throughout the Baldrige Award recipient's Baldrige journey, passed away recently. Gerry Agnes shared the following reflection in his honor.
I’m so blessed to have known and worked with Pete Reicks. He’s helped shape me to become a better person and leader of Elevations Credit Union. He was a great and dear friend to me and many others at Elevations Credit Union and in the [nationwide] Baldrige community. I’ve learned much from him and miss him dearly.
The pursuit of excellence using the Baldrige framework requires an enterprise-wide effort, and it also requires leadership throughout the enterprise. Using a football team analogy, I view myself as the coach on the sidelines, ensuring that we have a solid game plan and the appropriate personnel on the field. Our star quarterback was Pete Reicks. He knew every detail of the game plan; had the ability to call an audible on the field if the environment warranted it; and could throw the tightest, most accurate spiral to our wide receiver running a long-post pattern for the winning touchdown.
Pete possessed a high level of optimism and a strong intellect. That combination proved to be very powerful for Elevations Credit Union. Pete’s mantra was, “The Baldrige framework is about being better today than we were yesterday and becoming better tomorrow than we are today.”
From the beginning of my tenure at Elevations Credit Union, Pete readily embraced the Baldrige framework and prepared a detailed plan to launch it enterprise-wide. Shortly after this, he was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer. But he seemingly did not enable his dire health condition to impede his enthusiastic pursuit of excellence at our organization. Instead, he immersed himself in applying the Baldrige framework at Elevations and working with the greater Baldrige community. The observable impact was that Pete helped Elevations Credit Union become a Baldrige Award recipient in a relatively short time: we became a first-time Baldrige Award recipient in 2014 after submitting our first application. This achievement motivated him to work hard to propel us to become a two-time Baldrige Award recipient in 2020.
Becoming a Baldrige Award recipient organization is certainly an enterprise-wide endeavor. Yet, as with becoming a championship football team, it requires a winning quarterback. We at Elevations have been blessed to have had Pete as our quarterback.
At the Quest for Excellence® Conference in April 2021, Pete Reicks offered three key pointers to those interested in improving their organizations using the Baldrige framework:
The Baldrige Excellence Framework has empowered organizations to accomplish their missions, improve results, and become more competitive. It includes the Criteria for Performance Excellence, core values and concepts, and guidelines for evaluating your processes and results.