The Three Rs of Association Leadership
Simon Forrester is an association leader with over 25 years' experience in a variety of trade and professional membership senior roles. Here, he explores how the pandemic has changed the way associations work, and are perceived
As a child I was taught the three Rs - Reading, (w)Riting, and aRithmetic. Something of a tortuous phrase, but it covers the basic academic skills required to function in the world. The association leader of today merits another "triple R" as a response to the challenges of an ever-more volatile landscape. Associations and their members need some very different things from their leadership in difficult times, and these can be summarised thus:
While our own individual resilience has undoubtedly been tested over the past year (sometimes, sadly, to destruction), we have also had to develop skills in resilience both for the organisations we head, and the membership alike. On an operational level, swapping to a virtual service delivery in a matter of weeks has been a significant challenge for most of us, particularly those who set great store in the community side of our membership offering. The ever-growing round of association awards in the next 12 months will bear witness to how so many have adapted and excelled.
For some, the 'rainy day fund' of financial reserves has been used up to continue to deliver (and develop) benefits and services under challenging circumstances. We will have to re-fill those coffers, identifying new income streams and expanding into new markets. As a leader, it has brought home to me the very different personal circumstances of our employees and volunteers, and I have had to quickly adapt to support people with health or care needs that simply weren't visible before. Association leaders have been forced to support their staff teams remotely, and help them work in a very different way while continuing to deliver the same service levels alongside responding to new challenges. On a more strategic level, a lot of focus has been redirected to the here and now, and volunteers have understandably been concentrating on their own businesses survival rather than horizon scanning for the sector.
The common factor in all these challenges is the CEO. Success for the association leader is contingent on the resilience of both our members and the wider sector in which they operate, and this is where the association leader comes into her or his own. We are the ones who lobby government to effect change, the ones who create member support packages to keep them running, and the ones who deliver positive change for the industries we represent. Resilience starts - and ends - with the association leader.
This is something that few associations had to cover in the past. Our members did business, bought each other out or retired, went off to raise families or moved to new roles. But the association - and the industry - continued to chug merrily along. The pandemic put a stop to that. For those sectors whose businesses were closed, didn't get any real support from government, and could not easily adapt to an online delivery system (hospitality and theatres to name but two), the pandemic stood a real chance of shutting them for good. Add in a climate of fear around health and unknown risk profiles for basic activities, and it became clear that associations had to step in to reassure their members that they would still be there, maybe in a different format, when things settled back down. A figurehead with political capital, trusted by the membership, is needed to deliver that message. Step forward the association leader (you can see where this is heading, can't you).
I'd argue that this has been the constant across all the years and associations - the 'why should I pay this subscription' and the pandemic has, if you can call it a silver lining, offered association leaders the opportunity to demonstrate not only their own relevance but that of their association and membership. I have witnessed some amazing work by professional institutions and trade bodies who convinced government of their members' key worker status, lobbied to get their members urgently-needed PPE, or obtained financial support for their sector when it was at its lowest ebb. These successes will be remembered, and the 'currency' and goodwill generated will see some bodies thrive long into the future. As an association leader you will have your ear to the ground within your sector, and will know exactly where your membership are hurting - and what to do to ease the pain. That is a key skill for the leader of any membership body.
To sum up, and stretch the 'three Rs' analogy a little further, associations and their leaders have been presented with a new curriculum generated by rapid external societal change, one most have moved swiftly to embrace, often excelling in very difficult circumstances. At a time when some are asking 'whither the association CEO?" this is a perfect demonstration of the importance of a strong association leader at the helm now and in the future.