Association leadership can, at times, feel like an ever-changing job with a shifting list of requirements. Here’s one former association CEO’s take on the 10 key responsibilities of leadership.
Association executives, like members of other professions, have as many viewpoints of their key responsibilities as there are practitioners of the profession. Here’s my take on what’s important.
1. The executive has a responsibility to ensure that the association will still exist in 10 years to do the good work. Of course, the economy, the board of directors, the changing pace of technology in your industry, or a segment of the membership may take the ship onto the rocks despite your best efforts. But in a world where short-term thinking is endemic and where geese are regularly slaughtered in the vain search for golden eggs, someone has to be focused on the long term. That someone is you.
2. The executive has a responsibility to leave the association in better shape than she found it. Again, a focus on the long term is key. Flashy projects may make you popular. Quick fixes to members’ problems may be very tempting. But your job is to make sure that your association is more fiscally sound, better operated, more respected, and stronger the day you leave than the day you walked in the door.
3. The executive has a responsibility to focus the board on the big picture. Boards are comfortable operating at the micro level and will drift downward without pressure from below. Working on details and small projects, where you have a product at the end of the day, is more comfortable and satisfying than wrestling with strategic issues with undefined results. But you have to push them to do it, or they will soon be doing your job—or your assistant’s job—and no one will be doing the board’s job.
4. The executive has a responsibility to ask the tough questions. I’ve seen a state association exec fired, at age 62 after 20 years of service, for throwing “roadblocks” in front of a wonderful new marketing program. He was “too conservative,” too “out of touch with the changing times.” At the end of the year, the association had raised and spent a million dollars on a program that produced no results. Then the finger-pointing began.
A good exec knows he is putting his job on the line every week. Ask: Is it in the strategic plan? Is it in the budget? Is it in the mission? Is it legal and ethical? Have other associations done this and with what results? Does the vender have references? Are other venders providing the same service? Better to ask the tough questions, get fired, and move on than to violate the trust to preserve and strengthen the association by remaining silent.
Your job is to make sure that your association is more fiscally sound, better operated, more respected, and stronger the day you leave than the day you walked in the door.
5. The executive has a responsibility to set the example. Nothing is more key to leadership. If you demonstrate a weak work ethic, do you think the staff and volunteers will think the mission matters? If you don’t model fiscal responsibility, integrity, and frugality, do you think the board and staff will? And what will be the fiscal results?
6. The executive has a responsibility to manage, lead and lookout for the staff. If you are with a well-regulated association, your contract says that you have the responsibility to hire, supervise, compensate, and, when necessary, terminate staff. That’s part of managing them.
But you also have the responsibility to lead staff, to stimulate their interests, to develop their enthusiasm for the mission, to inspire them. By the same token, it’s your responsibility to look out for the staff’s welfare. If you get a big raise or bonus and the staff gets pennies, do you not think they will know it? And will they go the extra mile for you? You need to have an idea what is going on in their lives to demonstrate you think of them as valued people, not cogs in the association’s machine, and when necessary, to go to bat for them with the board and the leadership.
7. The executive has a responsibility to know the job. Like any profession, association management has a body of knowledge. And like every profession, no one can know it all. The literature doubles faster than we can read it. But if you don’t have a basic understand of things like nonprofit accounting, UBIT, board governance, and hundreds of other topics that are unique to what we do, you will fail. And your staff will understand that you are not competent and will not respect you as the staff leader.
That’s why it’s vital to belong to ASAE and the local association executive societies—to get out of your office and attend meetings where you can increase and share knowledge—and to stay up to date on the latest literature in the field.
8. The executive has a responsibility to be committed to the mission. If you don’t care, why should the staff? When I decided not to seek reelection to the Massachusetts senate after five terms, I was frustrated and burned out. I wanted a job where I didn’t have to care, where I could make a living and enjoy life. Luckily, I stumbled into association management, where I discovered I’m not capable of not caring!
If you are working for an association where you don’t feel a real commitment to the mission, cause, industry, or profession, it’s time to refresh your resume. The volunteers and staff will catch your lack of enthusiasm.
9. The executive has a responsibility to maintain ethics and integrity in the association. When things are done in secret, the association is headed for trouble. When things are done that you wouldn’t want in the trade press, the association is headed for trouble. When things are done to benefit a small group at the expense of the many, the association is headed for trouble. Speaking up for the right always takes moral courage, and you may pay a price. But eventually you’ll pay a higher price for silence.
10. The executive has a responsibility to carry out the wishes of the board, fully and enthusiastically. The board directs the goals and priorities of the association. When you believe what they are doing is counterproductive, you must tell them. But once they decide, you must go forward, unless the course is unethical or illegal. In that case, having told them, you must find other employment.
Editor’s Note: This article, originally published in 2007, has been updated.