The Challenges of Leadership

By Béatrice Richez-Baum
Secretary General, The European Confederation of Directors Association (ecoDa)
Board Member, ESAE, AssociationExecutives.EU

“How to improve association leaders’ knowledge? Which tools are available to improve their skills? What are the current challenges?”

Like businesses, trade associations feel the pinch of ever more competitive markets. In most professional fields, multiple associations compete for the commitment, time, and financial support of their constituencies. They cannot survive without reinventing themselves and assessing over time the added value that they provide to their members. Trade associations have gradually changed from social platforms to organizations that are required to deliver results and concrete actions. In that sense, those developments have narrowed the differences between businesses and trade associations. Association CEOs become trustworthy through their actions, their positions on important subjects and by being a reliable source of information for both members and regulators.

The Brexit is in itself a new challenge: it invites European associations to think about new types of services in order to keep their British members as part of their network.

Trade associations are also grappling with many of the complexities that face the businesses of their members. The regulatory framework is getting more and more complex with new sets of rules whose application may be either compulsory or voluntary. Trade organizations are expected not only to advocate the interests of their members when a new regulation is in the legislative pipeline but also to anticipate and sense the new trends that can impact their members’ activities in the long run. One challenge for CEOs is often to move from a club approach to a forward-looking institution.

It is common sense to say that time is a scarce resource which is even more meaningful in trade associations that rely mainly on volunteers. Time efficiency is extremely important for them; they need to capture the attention of their members and to get the very best out of them within the limited amount of time they agree to allocate. New types of collaborative approach have to be found in order to stimulate the involvement of all members. A good level of digital literacy can be helpful to develop new communication means for better interaction. Associations need to be innovative in the way they collect their information and spread it among their members.

Responsibilities carried on the shoulders of association leaders are therefore huge and they have to drive the necessary changes to meet the expectations of their members. Association leaders must demonstrate creative abilities and capacities to adapt. Surely those assets should be part of their own profile. However, given the large range of competences required, they have to update constantly their knowledge not only in terms of policy expertise but also in terms of communication and leadership skills. All means to improve their capacities are welcome but as strong believers in collective intelligence, they may be inclined to privilege peer-to-peer exchanges. Experience shows that nothing is more valuable than interacting with other CEO leaders and discussing how one specific issue has been dealt with in another association. Even if the context might vary, lessons learnt from other associations can be implemented easily. It is not a luxury to take the time to reflect on the ways things are done even if association leaders are often struggling with hectic agendas. Nevertheless, benchmarking how other associations operate is really helpful and another CEO can be used as “shadow coach”. Effective management implies self-reflection and constant re-assessment.

To this end, being part of an association of association leaders – ESAE being one of them – can provide access to a large pool of CEOs with varied backgrounds and expertise. The role of an organized body of professionals is unquestionably a primary force for CEOs who work with a very limited team – if not completely alone.

One can hit two targets with one bullet by following specific master programmes for association leaders. By attending such education programmes, CEOs can reap the benefits of improving their competences in a structured way while at the same time learning from the other participants. Those programmes are not numerous but they are worth the money if people want to know better their professional environment and look at opportunities for changes in operation. A good example in meeting the educational needs of the association sector is the Executive Master in International Association Management launched in 2015 by the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management.

Continuing education through reading and online courses is also another option but it requires even higher self-discipline. People are left alone with the implementation in practice.

At a time when more and more CEOs may embrace a “slash career”, association leaders should not refrain from adding strings to their bows.