In the Shoes of the Secretary General (Part II)

1st April 2018

A member of Boardroom Advisory board, Mohamed Mezghani has been appointed Secretary General of the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) in January. Boardroom has asked him to contribute a monthly column in which he explains all about the challenges of holding such a position. This is Mohamed’s second contribution, in which he argues that it’s all about the members.

An association is by definition member-focused. It seems obvious. But actually the way members are involved differs from an association to the other. And hence the focus on members doesn’t have the same scope. The more I meet my peers in other associations the more I realise the diversity of approaches.

The specificity of associations is that their shareholders are their customers, i.e. the members. They govern the association, decide on the rules, membership fees and programmes, and then they produce and consume services. It means that they have to safeguard the general interest while assuming the consequence of their decisions at an individual level. There is a risk of conflict if the governance structure and bodies don’t reflect the diversity of membership. Therefore, it is important to have rules all members can follow equally.

There is also a risk that the Secretariat or the staff of the association takes the lead forgetting that their role is to facilitate and support members and not to decide on their behalf. In that regard, associations are not companies: the owner is the member and not the CEO. The challenge is to make sure members dedicate time and effort to run the association. Even if the Secretariat has the expertise and resources to prepare papers, carry out studies and develop services, the legitimacy of the association is brought by the number, quality and profile of its members. They have the practical experience, they are the ones taking risks to innovate in their businesses and to develop their market, and the peer-to-peer exchange is what makes the association credible.

The association offers them an often international network and the bigger picture that they generally miss in their day-to-day job. We help them open their horizon, take a step back from any daily issue they might face and make them stronger by relaying their voice and joining it to that of their peers.

In an increasingly digitalised and competitive word, it is key to find new ways of engaging with members besides physical meetings which, to this day, remain one of the main reasons why people join an association.

Digitalisation, in a way, forces us to progress quickly, allows shorten timelines for project delivery. Because of it, we have to be more agile and react to changes faster. If our members are used to new techniques in their daily activities they must find the equivalent in the association. We have to commit to achieving such objectives.

Members also expect transparency and accountability from those managing the association. This is a great opportunity for us because they feel more concerned and therefore will engage more. Let’s be frank, our satisfaction at work often depends greatly from the interaction we have with our members. We are in a people’s industry. The more people are engaged, the better we feel, and the stronger the association will be. And when dealing with people, we must develop a culture of service excellence to keep them satisfied. And this is only feasible with happy staff… But this will be the topic of one of my next contributions.

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