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The list of 21st Century macro and nano trends is extensive, unprecedented, demanding, and almost exclusively interrelated. Associations are working harder than ever to define their value proposition within these complicated socio-economic environments, and their need to advocate, influence and respond to circumstances has never been more urgent and necessary. In these uncertain times all association leaders, irrespective of their memberships’ context, are striving to operate at peak efficiency and effectiveness, and to support their staff, boards, and members in increasingly fragile socio-economic and political environments. Indeed, perhaps for the first time in generations, associations must be wholly pragmatic in ensuring they add durable value to their members’ professions, industries, and communities.

Within this extraordinary multitude of contexts, association chief executives and their c-suite teams face increasing expectations from across a widening spectrum of interested parties, ranging from members, directors, and staff, to sponsors, policymakers, and industry. It is thus increasingly recognized that professional association leadership should be underpinned by an articulation of the range of characteristics which underline an individual’s credentials as an association leader.

Association leadership is a vocation; it is a profession; and for an increasing number of people, it is a career choice. It is craft which requires a complex mix of skills, knowledge, and experience, dexterously combining knowledge of association culture, structure, and politics, with expertise in strategy, advocacy, and corporate governance. But associations are complex ecosystems of structures, processes, behaviours, and relationships, all of which combine to make the chief executive’s role a multifarious position that requires a core set of inimitable skills, knowledge, and expertise. It is imperative therefore that chief executives are able to recognise and position themselves both within the workings of their association, and within the context of the membership sector; and so, as part of our commitment to supporting members’ professional development, and to elevating association leadership as a recognized and valued profession, we have created compass, which is a multidimensional map of the principal characteristics required to lead an association with impact.

Intended to promote the highest standards of professional competence, and based on the principles of good practice, as articulated by the Institute of Leadership & Management’s Dimensions of Leadership and other accepted models of impactful leadership, compass is designed to support chief executives as they navigate their profession, aiding them in assessing their leadership strengths, identifying areas for improvement, and planning their ongoing professional development.

And for a  new generation of association professionals, who are navigating their careers through association management and working towards or progressing through their c-suite roles, compass provides an understanding of the qualities and competencies that are necessary for success as an association’s most senior leader.


Just as every association’s context is unique, every chief executive’s position is distinct; and we recognise that not all of compass’ themes will apply equally to every chief executive’s role: many colleagues work as the sole employee, whilst others benefit from the expertise of a specialist staff base; some focus heavily on realising operational priorities, whilst others work to deliver strategic development; many work for associations which are vociferous lobbyists for their members, whilst for others, their professional focus is on supporting members’ professional education.

Trade associations, membership bodies, learned societies, royal colleges, professional institutes, and general associations all exist for distinct purposes and deliver a broad range of membership services. Therefore, rather than prescribing the chief executive role, we have created the definitive map of characteristics which are universal to leadership within the membership environment, albeit we acknowledge that everyone’s background, experiences, and professional focus varies.



As part of the IAL’s commitment to supporting members’ professional development, and to elevating association leadership as a recognised and valued profession, we are pleased to launch compass: the systems map for association leaders.

Access to compass is an exclusive benefit of IAL membership (which remains free for the remainder of 2021). 

Become a member today and start navigating your professional development journey with us!



  • Navigate a first-look at the structure and themes of compass;
  • Find out more about the background to its development; and
  • Learn how association professionals can use compass to its maximum potential.

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