Contain the emotion, provide a solution

When I was a young congressman, I received my share of visits from emotional and sometimes angry constituents. They were angry not so much at me, but rather at the bureaucratic process. Quite often, their response was understandable, but misdirected when it came to proposing a solution to the problem at hand.

For instance, a frequent constituent comment at my district offices would be something along the lines of, “Mr. Mica, you tell the president personally I want the Veterans Administration to cover my procedure” or “I want you to pass a bill that will get the immigration people away from my family.”

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Again, the concerns were valid, and I truly empathized with the challenge being presented. The key, of course, was to first listen and then explain carefully how the emotion had to be channeled properly. The medical issue would not be solved by my discussion with the president, but rather by a detailed conversation between my skilled legislative aides, Veterans Administration staff and me. The immigration problem would be addressed through a painstaking process involving additional staff, a chain of federal attorneys and personal calls made by me at all hours.

This experience, of course, is not unique. Those of you who work on Capitol Hill or on K Street probably have similar stories. The fact is, however, all of us — especially in times like these — need to be more mindful than ever when it comes to containing emotion and finding the right solution. In this deep recessionary environment, K Street association members are speaking up and demanding action.

In the case of the credit union industry, emotions recently ran high. Our industry’s federal regulator had to step in and take over two wholesale “corporate” credit unions. In order to truly stabilize these institutions, the regulator had to use billions of dollars in emergency money. Where did that money come from? Credit unions’ federal deposit insurance fund, which is paid for by assessing 8,000 “natural person” credit unions — the ones that serve people like you and me.

In my 13 years as the Credit Union National Association’s CEO, no other issue had generated as much e-mail to me from our members. The messages, some quite heated, included: Why should we have to pay for this all at once? What are you going to do to solve this? We want CUNA talking to every member of Congress about this situation!

As had been the case with constituents during my congressional tenure, the emotions and concerns were valid. So we determined the best way to address the situation was not to tell our members they should not be angry. Instead, we said, let’s channel the energy in the right way, a way that could have a positive impact on the situation. Rather than an “all-out assault” on Congress and the administration (inappropriate in this instance), we directed our members to take the unusual step of e-mailing our regulator directly to express their views.

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The result: More than 15,000 e-mails in two days. Some at the regulatory agency were not happy to receive so many e-mails, but I explained to the agency’s chairman that expressing concerns in this way was more productive for us and for the agency than having our members storm Capitol Hill, which many were ready to do.

The further result: One of the other agency board members issued a statement the next day welcoming the grassroots response. We demonstrated unanimity of purpose and certainly got the agency’s attention so that it was aware of the heightened level of concern felt by our members. The regulator is also now making available more information related to the cost of the actions it had taken against these two corporate credit unions, in an effort to provide greater transparency.

I view this recent incident as highly instructive for all of us who work on or with Capitol Hill. Congressional and K Street leaders must work to properly address and redirect the concerns, passions and energies of their constituents/members.

A prominent and savvy CEO said in a recent conversation: “A good leader never lets a crisis go to waste.” The financial-services industry is going through a crisis and lack of confidence, as are various parts of our economic system. Clearly, those who survive this and come out victors and winners are the ones who 1) did not let the crisis go to waste and 2) channeled the energy of the crisis into new solutions — reinventing and -invigorating, sometimes from the ground up.

Mica is the president and chief executive of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), which represents nearly 8,500 credit unions with 90 million members. He was a congressman (D-Fla.) from 1979-89.