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Author: Jack Shand, CAE

And, How They May Be Equipped to Help Associations Adapt to the Future

What is the emerging generation (40 or younger) of association leaders looking for in their future career and from future employers? How do they see the sector in five or ten years?

Four individuals with senior association management experience were invited to share their thoughts on: career experience and preparation for leadership roles; how future roles will be attractive to future employees; the issues younger leaders foresee for organizations and how the next generation of CEOs may be equipped to help employers with the changes already in play and accelerating.

The four are –

  • Nicole Burgess, Executive Director, Supply Chain Management Association Saskatchewan.A graduate of Simon Fraser University, Nicole has been with her current association for seven years. She is a CAE® candidate.
  • Chris Conway, President and CEO of the Ready Mixed Concrete Association of Ontario. Chris has a law degree and MBA, with prior association management experience in government relations following roles on Parliament Hill and as a consultant.
  • Marco D’Angelo, Executive Director of the Ontario Traffic Council. Marco has his MBA, is a certified association executive, and had earlier roles in government relations in association management as well as Parliament Hill experience.
  • Susie Grynol, President of Hotel Association of Canada, Inc. Susie is a certified association executive. Susie worked at the House of Commons for four years after graduating from the University of Ottawa.

While there are many outstanding performers currently in the ranks of younger association managers, these four were selected because I know something of their background and, with my own experience in consulting, executive search, and association CEO leadership roles, I think they are representative of a capable new generation of leaders. I am optimistic among this group are the future CEOs of Canada’s pre-eminent associations.

Experience for the Future

It has been suggested that the association specialist will be replaced, or already has been, with managers with experience across many sectors – in business, the professions, government, and not-for-profit.

Nicole Burgess observes that as executives are expected to do more with less and perform at a higher level and at faster speeds than ever before, education and diverse sectoral experience (from healthcare to the arts to business) will best equip them to deal with the demands placed upon them.

Chris Conway recognizes that management mastery is expected by employers. Management experience and training, including executive leadership continuing education programs, will help those individuals aspiring to run one of Canada’s leading not-for-profits hone their abilities in the coming decade. Managing people continues to be very important, as association executives not only manage staff but a large virtual group of members, directors, working groups such as committees, and in some cases front-line volunteers. Financial literacy is also important (all the more so as traditional revenue sources are under pressure). Last but not least, diverse experience will prepare the CEO to relate to individuals on the Board of Directors who may often comprise leaders in their own sector (private or public sectors), and to deal externally - and substantively - with government on challenging issues globally, domestically, and sector-specifically.

Marco D’Angelo suggests that the new energy and perspectives a younger employee may offer have to be balanced with behaviours demonstrating an ability to lead. He cautions that one cannot facilitate change, with over-confidence or an “I-know-better” attitude that will alienate Boards of Directors and members, no matter how compelling change may be needed. Marco recommends that the best way to overcome age-related questions about experience and preparation are to provide fresh solutions but also recognize there may be a time-honoured way to get things done. Understanding the association’s framework (e.g., consultation, compromise, consensus) to adopt and implement change, and understanding the “old guard”, will go a long way to increasing the likelihood that new ideas will take root.

Susie Grynol believes the next generation of CEOs will have a tougher job than the current one. Member expectations are higher than before and there are more organizations (both private and public) offering comparable services. CEOs will need to help their organization retain members. This will require fresh thinking and creative ways of delivering value to stay ahead of what Susie predicts will be “fierce” competition for members’ support, time, and money.

Career Planning and Ongoing Development

Susie Grynol adds that the young association executive today needs to complement job training and education with a strong network of peers, experience through volunteering, and mentorship. It takes careful planning. She encourages every young person to have a mentor, or several, who are willing to teach and share their wisdom. A strong peer network will help the young executive navigate through the new experiences, identifying industry standards or better practices the executive can apply to their situation. Volunteering opens doors to developing skills in areas where a paid job may not, as well as helping the individual appreciate that “running an association has more to do with people management than any other skill.” Drawing upon her own benefits as a volunteer, Susie notes that “one is exposed to different personalities, dynamics and situations” that will be helpful preparation for the demands of being the staff leader of a not-for-profit organization.

Chris Conway also notes that it is harder to market one’s self through a résumé and networks are increasingly important, so making those connections is an essential strategy.

Marco D’Angelo feels that the “qualities unique to a single association can be learned on the job” and, therefore, the priority investment should be developing “managerial mental flexibility” through more general programs such as the CAE® (grounding in association management), an MBA degree (learning general business), and certificate programs in the individual’s skill gap areas such as group facilitation or web technology.

Motivating Exceptional Talent

The reality for not-for-profit organizations and their Boards is that talented employees have options. The mediocre organization is not likely to attract or retain an extraordinary executive who wants to be part of a well-functioning team achieving stretch goals. So what do these younger leaders feel will be the attractors – or detractors – in considering jobs in the future?

Chris Conway will be drawn to the cause, area or industry that can show forward thinking and recognize global-context. Associations that think beyond Canada and the United States and recognize the value of partner relationships are more likely to be thought-leaders in his view. The environment, sustainability, education standards are all areas that transcend borders. A detractor will be the employer that does not see value or willingness to recognize these trends.

Susie Grynol recognizes that the organization’s value proposition is the central issue as members demand more, and associations have to be nimble by quickly adapting or building programs that link to ever-evolving needs. For Susie Grynol, the biggest deterrent is the employer that cannot handle the need for change and the pace at which change must occur.

And the younger association leaders still feel – as is the case for more seasoned CEOs – that alignment with the organization’s values and mission are important to job satisfaction and motivation.

Opportunities To Be Met 

In the next decade, the younger leaders foresee opportunities for organizations to achieve their goals in the changing landscape of organizational value and stakeholder expectations.

Nicole Burgess sees that many organizations in the not-for-profit sector have evolved to become more competitive and business-minded. For those that have not, she believes that associations must operate more like a business including integration of business systems and approaches, demonstrating high levels of professionalism with all products and services, and attracting the highest caliber of human resources (staff and volunteers) possible. Technology is now so pervasive that the organization that is not already well along integrating technology into their business processes – possibly only because they haven’t the resources to be competitive – will likely disappear in the next five years.  In Nicole’s view this is the most significant change in play and where younger executives have the potential to offer value by pointing out what advances and applications in technology are present or coming. The younger executive is more in tune with technology, perhaps more adaptive and responsive to change, and can help their associations understand how technology’s impact will influence future success and growth.

Younger executives and managers, Chris Conway suggests, intuitively understand how the younger demographic communicates and what they expect. Technology has been core to their life experience – in education, at work, and socially. Chris also emphasizes that younger people are inherently more global in their thinking.  This may lead to opportunities, for example in China, as more competitive, relevant not-for-profit organizations expand and become enablers of success in other parts of the world.

Susie Grynol predicts the not-for-profit of tomorrow will look very different from the ones today. She thinks that most organizations are held back by historic structure, including inefficient governance models, programs that are not “exactly” in line with members’ needs, disjointed communications strategies, and too many committees. These structures are barriers and threats to quick decision-making. Members increasingly see a disconnect between the resources spent on governance meetings or defining roles among provincial divisions or local branches, over what matters most to them: programs and services with value which they demand. Her call to action: “This sounds negative, but it’s not. I think there is a tremendous opportunity on the horizon for associations en masse to shake things up, to be more efficient, and to streamline both operations and programs for the betterment of all involved.”  The younger leaders today are well positioned to help their organizations because they are not afraid of new things and they embrace change. Their frustration when things don’t make sense or are not accessible immediately, simply mirror how increasing numbers of members feel.

Marco D’Angelo predicts that as long-time members increasingly retire, transactional members will take their place and the emphasis will be – as is already seen – more on accountability (versus belonging and loyalty).  In effect, organizations will face a “daily referendum”. Participation in organizations will be experiential. Marco also recognizes that the younger manager may be effective at harnessing technology. However, he reiterates the point that success for the younger CEO will be incorporating legacy knowledge and processes, and then adding value with new ideas and new platforms to reach members. Creating the means for constant feedback from members and on-going demonstrations of membership value will be the hallmarks of managing tomorrow’s associations. “Waiting for the annual general meeting to facilitate change” will no longer be an option, he cautions.

Both Marco and Susie Grynol believe the recipe for success includes blending new ideas and fresh thinking with a respect for the past. Change is occurring and it needs new thinking, but Boards will continue to respond to action that is justifiable and constructive. Older colleagues also need to buy-in and can share context and other information that will help make the case for necessary change.

From this representative group of young leaders, the indicators are clear that the not-for-profit sector is in very capable hands as it transitions from current leadership to the next generation of thought-leaders.