We’ve all heard the expression “Jack or Jill of all trades”. When it comes to leadership in the association management world, this expression couldn’t be more relevant. Association leadership takes many forms. There are many traits that association leaders need to possess if they are going to succeed. Indeed, to lead an association, one must be a Jack or Jill of all trades and have skills and experience in many different areas.
While board leadership is crucial to the success of any association wanting to achieve its vision and mission, executive (or CEO) leadership also must be strong to keep the association moving forward. The skillset of an Executive Director or CEO needs to be varied and flexible to deal with the twists and turns that many associations experience.
Throughout this article, the title CEO can be interchanged with the title of Executive Director.
Attributes of an Association Leader
I attended a Big Chair Executive Development Seminar many years ago sponsored by the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE). One of the speakers, Jack Shand, CAE, shared a list of ten characteristics/attributes that every association executive leader should possess. I found them interesting and fairly accurate according to my own experience as an association leader.
The characteristics that a leader should possess were as follows:
- Be an Advocate and Champion
- Keep one’s Ego in Check
- Focus on the Future
- Be Intelligent
- Have a Commitment to Learning
- Have Management Skills
- Be Politically Intuitive
- Manage Relationships Well
- Have Self-Awareness
- Possess Values that Fit with the Association
Staff with these 10 characteristics/attributes are usually highly sought after by boards because possessing them will help you do a better job as a CEO. Association boards are looking for leaders they can work with to get things done, not just manage tasks.
Every good leader usually has all 10 of these attributes, though some are stronger than others in some people, but generally they are all present in some shape or form.
In my opinion, several of these attributes are crucial in the environment that association CEOs find themselves in today, especially because the pace of change is very fast in associations. Here I focus on two of these attributes that if applied, will help you work towards the mission and vision of an association.
Future focus is a critical skill that an association leader needs. Leaders must be able to recognize and offer insight on how to best take advantage of opportunities that are critical to the success of the association. Many of our clients refer to their strategic plan to ensure that staff and the board are focused on organizational goals. It helps keep the association focused on the future.
The future-focused leader has a level of flexibility and adaptability that allows them to flow with what the future brings. They have the ability to think through how future trends might affect the members of the association, how to understand the implications, and how to navigate the organization (staff, board, members and stakeholders) through the changes.
Another attribute I see as being crucial is relationship management. Relationships are the cornerstone to making things happen and maintaining a thriving association and board of directors.
The relationship you have with members is crucial. They must see value in being a member and they must believe that the leadership of the association is working for them. Members are the reason many associations exist (regulatory associations exist to protect the public, so are slightly different) and members’ issues drive the activities each association takes on.
Not only must CEOs manage relationships with members, but also with the board of directors of the association. The board is ultimately responsible for what goes on in any association. “The buck stops here” is a pretty accurate expression to explain the level of accountability the board has to the members. The CEO-board relationship needs to be supported by the CEO without coming across as being too forceful (this would be covered in the keeping your ego in check and self-awareness attributes above). This relationship needs to be strong to get things done.
The other relationship a CEO needs to manage is with staff. Staff members do a good chunk of the work necessary to run an association and they should be valued. Maintaining and managing this relationship well will help the association achieve its goals.
Lastly, the relationship the CEO develops and maintains with the stakeholders of the association is important. Government, allied associations, and suppliers all make up the stakeholders. Building and keeping strong lines of communication with them is very important and a key job of the CEO.
It is important to note that not every CEO can be 100% competent in each of the attributes outlined above. However, leveraging and improving your strengths is a great way to serve your board and be a valued leader within an association.
For more on association leadership, read Association Leadership Creates A Top Performing Association, Association Leadership Changes Can Be Hard – Lessons Learned,
and my past article What does Leadership look like?