Is there only one way to lead an association?

One of the challenges and benefits of working for an Association Management Company (AMC) is that you get exposed to many different styles and forms of leadership. No “one” style or form is correct and effective for all associations but there are some core ingredients that help maintain a positive direction for an organization.



The first and most obvious one that is often the hardest for most leaders is communication. In today’s world of “too much” information, it is important for leaders of associations to drill down to the fundamentals and important information that an association needs to focus on. Just to be clear, I am not talking about external communications for members but instead I’m referring to internal communications with Board members, committee members, and staff that is open and transparent.


Board Communication

There isn’t just one way that works for staying in touch with your Board members. Communication styles are unique and different for everyone and with the advent of virtual meetings, there are so many ways to connect with your Board. Email of course is a good way of tracking a topic thread and easy to refer back to when clarification is needed. Plus virtual paper trails are always ideal. Challenge with email is the volume most people get in a day makes it hard to stay on top of it.

A method I have seen work well for Boards is for the Board Chair to connect individually with Board members and committee Chairs either by phone or virtually. The advantage of the one-on-one connection is it builds repour and trust between the Chair, Board, and committee members. It allows for open dialogue on issues pertaining to the Board and allows for hearing perspectives that Board members might be reluctant to share during a regular meeting.


Staff Communication

I have attended symposiums in the past for Chief Staff Executives and Chief Elected Officers curated  by the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE). The whole session focuses on leadership and leading together as a volunteer and staff. These sessions were invaluable in setting a stage for a culture of communication and the gathering of information to help make better and more informed decision making. I would recommend training like this for Chairs that are new to the world of associations. The partnership approach to leading works.


Availability & Listening

As a leader, you need to be accessible to members, Board members and staff. At a Strategic Planning session recently done by one of our AMC clients, the facilitator talked about the Chair / President being a crucial role for the success of the organization. You need to know why you exist, what the mission and vision is for the organization and always look at the “big” picture. You are not alone but it is important that you make sure you lead in a way that pulls out the best from the Board Members and that means being accessible to them.

Being available is important but also listening to the Board and staff is crucial to understanding where they are coming from. Each Board member has a lens in which they see the world or their profession, listening and understanding what lens they are looking through is important as a leader to help guide the association.



The Board  Chair needs to work with the senior staff person (Executive Director / CEO) to create the agenda for Board meetings. Some say it is an art to create an agenda that deals with the important issues facing the association and gaining Board engagement. The days of reviewing the reports submitted from committees is less effective than having the Board engage in conversations on strategy related to the future of the organization. Agenda is key and depending on the Board (operational / strategic), the agenda will dictate how you are viewed as a leader and how well said meetings are run.


Decision Making & Conflict Resolution

Bringing talented people together at a Board meeting can sometime be challenging in building consensus or managing conflict that arises from contentious topics. The operative word for Board members is “talented.” This usually means they know their stuff about topics related to their expertise and they are not scared to share. This can sometimes lead to conflict or a difference of opinion that needs the talent of a good leader to breakdown the issue, bring the Board back onto the mission and  vision and make the decision based on facts and what is best for the association.


Transition of Leaders

As mentioned in the title, transition of leaders and leadership styles can be challenging. Board members change, leaders change, and the organization needs to operate in a way that maintains member value and meets the expectation of all.

If you are taking over from a strong leader, focus on the basics of connecting with the Board, setting agendas that lead to good conversation, making yourself available and open to building consensus on challenging topics.

Chairing is not easy, but it is rewarding. Ask lots of questions, listen, and learn from your Board and staff; it will make your transition into leadership a whole lot easier.