< Browse more articles

Advice for the Next Generation of Association Leaders

The one lesson I have learned in my career that stands out the most is that relationships are key to one’s success as an executive in an association. The best advice I can give to the next generation of association leaders is best illustrated through several anecdotes.

When I first arrived at the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) as the CEO, the branches (that is the CBA semi-autonomous organizations in the provinces and territories) hated the national organization. They felt that there was poor communication and people simply were not listening. I focused on building a relationship with the executive directors in each province and territory and in fact developed a plan that involved monthly phone calls with the group and two in-person meetings a year. That group is now known as the management group and includes those executive directors plus my senior management team. Over time the group developed a great deal of trust in each other and were prepared to speak frankly and honestly about issues - as a result, the collaboration and cohesiveness in the organization increased. The key to all of that was building personal relationships, traveling to the branches, meeting the executive directors, meeting the volunteers and having a relationship where my credibility was established but I also got to understand what the issues and challenges were for them.

The other challenge for an association executive is the myriad of stakeholders that may have a connection to your association whether that be an international group, friendly competitors, or business partners that you may have. I was able to develop successful partnerships with those people by focusing on establishing a good relationship with the key people in those different stakeholder groups. Meeting people in person and establishing a relationship with them so that they feel comfortable picking up the phone and talking to you and know that you are an individual of your word, will contribute greatly to your success as an association executive. The incredible fringe benefit of having those relationships is that you find that you have wonderful new friends and an incredible source of ideas and information when you are faced with a challenge.

John D.V. Hoyles, B.A., LL.B.
Chief Executive Officer
Canadian Bar Association

It took me a long time in my career as chief staff officer to have the self-confidence to understand that when the Board of Directors discussed operational matters they weren’t trying to interfere with my management role. They were just trying to be helpful. Even when Board members started with “you should” they meant “you should consider” because in the end they always accepted that the final decision was mine.

The key is to properly manage what some might consider interference in operations. Boards of Directors have a wealth of knowledge and experience that can be very helpful. It’s often useful to seek their advice and counsel on management issues, but it’s necessary to be clear at the outset that you’re
not asking for a decision. It is equally important to have the Board Chair onside to prevent unwarranted motions being made in areas that are a management responsibility.

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to use your Board for advice on management matters. Just manage it properly and have the self-confidence to know they respect your role.

John Gustavson
Past President
Canadian Marketing Association

Find a cause you’re passionate about and you will be able to work for it for many years. There are three specific things that I view as essential for those working in the association sector: motivated by a cause, working with people, and good management practices.

In 1982, I was completing my MBA at HEC Montréal when I saw an ad saying that a new occupational health and safety organization was looking for a Chief Executive Officer. Everything needed to be built from scratch, and that pleased me. To get the organization off to the right start, we needed to establish values appropriate to the management environment, determine member needs, and understand the founding associations and company people so the Centre patronal de santé et sécurité du travail du Québec (CPSSTQ) could offer programs and services of value. At that time, the management environment was relatively unequipped in relation to the new health and safety legislation. Every association had its own vision and we needed to try to connect everyone’s dream. I had found my cause! It kept me busy until my retirement, 31 years later.

The qualities required to work as a Chief Staff Officer of an association are: generosity, the desire to build, leadership – while being able to remain on the sidelines - a lot of adaptation and knowing how to channel your energy. You also need to respect people, volunteers, member associations, and the work done by other organizations as well as their mission. This requires a good deal of the ability to analyse social, economic and political aspects so as to acknowledge what needs to be implemented to offer businesses the appropriate health and safety services.
You’re part of the emerging generation and you consider working in the association sector? Know its specificities, invest in your education and you will find working in the association sector demanding but so very gratifying.

Denise Turenne, M.B.A, Adm.A.
Retired President and CEO
Centre patronal de santé et sécurité du travail du Québec (CPSSTQ)

50 years of association management have convinced me that our profession and the not-for-profit organizations we serve are the corner stone of a democratic society. Our involvement enables individuals or member companies to accomplish collectively what they could not achieve on their own.

Our volunteer leaders that make up our board of directors get involved because they believe in the organization’s mission and can make decisions and take actions that will have an impact. It is our responsibility to demonstrate to our elected leaders and the members they represent that we are partners in the leadership of our association.

Members play two leading roles in their association, being both owners- thus giving orders- and clients- making their requirements heard and judging the price-quality ratio of services rendered. That can be a challenge for those who must guide our volunteers in reaching a reasonable consensus.
Our profession has its pitfalls to which we can fall prey, no matter how vigilant we are. We are always waking on a tight rope; when we are too discreet, too unassuming, we are perceived to be hiding behind the association; when we are too visible, members accuse us of one-upmanship or of preventing them from fully fulfilling their director’s mandate. It is indeed a delicate balancing act.

Michel G. Tremblay, CAE
Executive Director
Automotive Industries Association of Canada -Québec division

Association management is all about people. It took me a while to learn that. I thought it was about the technical aspects of managing well – bottom lines, strategic plans, operational plans, risk management assessments, etc., nope – that’s not the meat in the sandwich. It’s about people.

  1. You need to not be afraid to surround yourself with staff that are smarter than you.
  2. Staff want to do well, to be successful, to bring results to the table, so let them. Don’t get in their way by micromanaging. If you do, they will delegate all decisions upwards.
  3. Don’t be afraid to let non-performers go. Hard working, productive employees resent working in the next cubicle to someone who gets paid the same but does not earn it.

The same applies for the board of directors - it’s about people. You can be so-so on the aforementioned technical aspects of managing the organization but you have to get the “care and feeding” of your volunteers right:

  1. Directors are individuals and you have to keep that in mind when dealing with board members.
  2. Find out what their “self-interest” is early in the game.
  3. They don’t like to be surprised. If the sky is going to fall – let them know when!

In conclusion – my advice to the next generation of association leaders is this – nothing changes – it’s about people. They may now use Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, Vimeo, Instagram and I started with snail mail, fax and eventually email – it is still about people.

Ed Barisa
Chief Executive Officer
Ontario Real Estate Association