Elevating Association Leadership

21st August 2023

Canada is home to a comprehensive set of competencies to foster excellence in association leadership, writes Danielle Lamothe, CAE, CTDP, Vice President, Learning and Innovation, Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE).

This article is part of a brand-new and special partnership between Boardroom and the Canadian Society of Associations Executives.

As an association leader, you may frequently find yourself overwhelmed by decisions. Annual planning, governance reviews, adjusting internal policies, launching new products and services, rethinking member communications. There is never a shortage of work, and it can be hard to navigate all of the competing priorities while answering to your Board on strategic and annual objectives. The truth is, we can’t do all of the things all of the time. As leaders, it’s critical to set realistic priorities and objectives and this is ideally done in collaboration with your staff team and Board. Getting everyone aligned is one key to your success. So, how do you achieve that alignment?

CSAE (the Canadian Society for Association Executives) recognises the complexity of the role of association leader and to help you navigate it, we’ve developed the Competencies for Association Executives. 

What Are the Competencies For Association Executives?

More commonly called the Competencies, this is a guide that addresses all aspects of performance in senior leadership positions within the association and not-for-profit sector. 

It was developed over three years by a dedicated team of not-for-profit leaders and subject-matter experts with the goal of outlining the work of association management. This painstaking endeavour has yielded approximately 60 pages of the essential competencies that high-performing associations execute in the service of their members.

Organized into five major competency areas, the Competencies are intended to make the job of association leadership simpler. 

That said, the Competencies are not a prescriptive how-to guide to non-profit management. This is not a one-size-fits-all solution to running a successful organization. That’s because the size of your budget and team, your competing priorities and the needs of your members all play a critical role in identifying the best possible approach for your organization. As experienced leaders know, there is never just one answer to the challenges faced by an association or not-for-profit. The landscape is always shifting. 

Quite frankly, I can’t think of any association that is tackling all the tasks listed in the Competencies at the same time. That’s unrealistic and ill-advised. For example, an association conducting a full governance review or developing a brand-new strategic plan every year would be wasting valuable staff and volunteer bandwidth. Similarly, refining your onboarding process might not be a priority when you are fully staffed and don’t have any open positions. Each organization and situation is unique. But the Competencies can help as a resource for collaborative and individual goal setting.

Cathy Cummings, executive director of the International Alliance of ALS/MND Associations, has used the competencies as a tool for her Board in her own performance evaluation. “Setting clear priorities with  my Board at the beginning of the fiscal year and then assessing my performance against those ensures everyone is aligned in their expectations,” she said. “I can also refer back to the competencies when some shiny new opportunities come up during the year. If I’m shifting priorities, I want everyone to be on the same page about what the impact of that can be on the annual plan and where my energy is placed. It helps protect me personally but also ensures the organization keeps its strategic priorities at the forefront.”

Gemma Beierback, CEO of the Canadian Chiropractic Examining Board, also uses the competencies with her Board. “My Board can really see the work that I’m doing when it comes to governance issues because they are working alongside those efforts. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. On the other hand, so much of the rest of my role isn’t really clear to them – which is fair, most people don’t know what an association CEO really does,” said Ms. Beierback. “The competencies help me make the rest of the iceberg visible to them. Helping the Board understand the full scope of what the team and I are doing really clarifies why some objectives simply can’t be added to the workload. Or, if they must be added, how those additional objectives might impact the annual plan.”

How The Competencies Guide Association Management and Leadership 

The Competencies have been carefully developed to make the work of association management easier for leaders, Boards and staff. The document is designed for use by associations and not-for-profits in various ways, including:

  • Priority setting: Chief staff officers (CSOs) can work with their Boards and staff to identify the most important tasks to tackle in any given fiscal year
  • Assessment: Boards can use the Competencies as an assessment tool to determine key strengths and areas of development for the CSO
  • Development: Sector leaders can use the resource as a guideline for personal professional development
  • Planning: Boards and CSOs can plan for succession in the organization by identifying upcoming priorities and the resources needed to succeed
  • Capacity building: CSOs can use the Competencies to assist them in building a team that complements their own strengths and weaknesses

Five Major Competency Areas for Association Leadership

The guide includes five competency areas with associated sub-competencies. For each, we drill down into specific tasks, as well as the key outputs you’ll produce by tackling them. And we keep the competencies relevant and updated on a three-year cycle – this allows us to reflect feedback from the people using it and changes within the association and not-for-profit sectors. 

1. Optimize Governance

  • Ensure effective and efficient governance
  • Contribute to the effectiveness of the board and committees
  • Lead development of a strategic plan
  • Advise the board on issues requiring their input
  • Develop a risk management strategy
  • Analyse current financial state of the organization
  • Develop a long-term business strategy
  • Develop an annual business plan
  • Develop and maintain brand and reputation
  • Develop partnerships to achieve organization objectives

3. Lead People 

  • Evaluate human resource requirements
  • Recruit staff and volunteers
  • Onboard staff and volunteers
  • Establish staff and volunteer codes of conduct
  • Manage individual performance
  • Manage teams
  • Manage change
  • Conduct ongoing personal leadership development

4. Manage Operations 

  • Manage day-to-day financials
  • Manage an annual external financial audit or review engagement
  • Manage facilities
  • Manage equipment
  • Manage technology
  • Develop operational practices

5. Deliver Value 

2. Establish Direction 

  • Collect evidence-based data
  • Identify needs of segments
  • Conduct continuous improvement of organizational offerings

The Competencies are free to all so download your copy today. You can find them at https://csae.com/competencies-for-association-executives/.  

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