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Leaders of Associations Need to Get Out More!

By Lee Davies, Chair of the Institute of Association Management

I see myself as a professional association leader.  I never trained to become one, my background is a blend of the construction industry and further education.  I found myself leading a membership association by accident.  Indeed, when I applied for and was appointed to the role, I didn’t really appreciate it was a membership association and how that influenced the governance and operation of the organisation.  Once I did, I was hooked. Professionally, I am a long way removed from the further education sector, I am even further removed from the construction industry, though I remain a member of the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIHE) and I can still fit a bathroom or service a boiler.  I am sure some aspects of those sectors influence the leader I am now but I was not appointed to be the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys because I am a plumber or a teacher.  I cut my teeth in senior leadership roles in two other associations, with little by way of formal training or development, and got the present gig off the back of my accomplishments.


"It is a great tragedy, is it not?  Our community, dare I say it our profession, deserves thought leadership and influence just as much as the professions, industries and areas we serve"

I am, however, a passionate learner.  I want to be exposed to challenge.  I want to learn from peers.  I want to share my experiences, good and bad, with others.  I want to network.  I need support.  Being the Chief Executive of an association, large or small, can be a lonely place.  It is why you will find me, to this day, pitching up to association events and conferences such as memcom as a speaker or a delegate.  These events are rarely pitched exclusively at the senior leaders of associations but I thrive on spending time with the folk at all levels who really make associations what they are.  This senior leader takes being part of a global community of membership associations very seriously.


When I turn up and browse the delegate list, I often reflect on why there are so few Chief Executives and the like there.  I wonder how many of my fellow Chief Executives ever stop to think about the purpose of association events and conferences and the personal value they might see through attending.  On a regular basis the folk who work in associations come to events and conferences to share best practice, give freely of themselves and create a real sense of community. 


I am generalising here as a number of my senior colleagues give freely of their time to support events like memcom, but the vast majority of Chief Executives do not.  Why is that the case?


To put it quite bluntly, I think that most senior leaders in our sector do not see themselves as being membership or association professionals.  They see their role as being the principal representative for the profession, industry or area served by the association.  It would be very unfair of me to single out any one of my colleagues, much though I would love to, so I will use one of my trusted stories.  Alex, the Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Widget Makers, is far too busy moving in widget making circles and lobbying on behalf of widget makers to give any time to membership or association networks.  Alex is a former widget maker and sees the role through that lens, there are other staff to look after mundane aspects such as the recruitment, retention and active participation of members.


It is a great tragedy, is it not?  Our community, dare I say it our profession, deserves thought leadership and influence just as much as the professions, industries and areas we serve.  When I say that Chief Executives need to get out more, I mean to events such as memcom; to the networks that exist to support the great folk who work in associations.  We are no less professional than those we serve and we deserve better from our leaders and influencers.


I have long held the view that senior leaders of associations, regardless of background, share a professional identity.  We all work with volunteers.  We all work within association governance structures.  We all have relationships with elected volunteer officers.  We employ similar types of people performing similar roles.  We are all ultimately responsible and accountable for the performance of our associations, whatever the size and how ever many people we have to delegate aspects of our leadership role to.  Wouldn’t it be good if there was a safe place for association leaders to come together, to network and to learn from each other.


There is.  The Institute of Association Management (IofAM) is one of the association sector’s best kept secrets.  It was, in the dark mists of time, formed as the Secretaries Club to create a network of association leaders.  It seems such an archaic title, but my first senior association post was as the Secretary of the Thames and Solent Workers’ Education Association and the term is alive and well in trade unions and similar bodies.  The IofAM has moved on and now offers membership to Chief Executives, Managing Directors, Executive Directors, Heads of, indeed and senior leader or aspiring senior leader of an association.


The IofAM has formed a strategic partnership with memcom to ensure that there is in place the infrastructure and other support services needed to grow the membership, to enable the IofAM to increase the benefits and services available to members and to enable memcom to extend its work in the area of association leadership.  There will be many exciting announcements to come, such the relaunch of Associations Week, a refresh of the IofAM’s membership offer and new opportunities for the next generation of association leaders.  We will be working together with memcom to develop the CEO Forum as a central benefit of membership and to continue to build the collection of professional guidance notes. 


My challenge to association leaders and aspiring leaders is a simple one: come and join us.  You now have a place to come.  A place where you can network with peers, learn and support the learning of others, socialise and feel part of a community.  You just need to get out more!


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