Current Affairs

The Peculiarities of Association Leadership

24th November 2020

For ESAE, Zsuzsanna Bódi, Director of the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL), explains what makes association leadership so special, as the individual leading an organization has to have a high-level set of skills allowing him/her to navigate this peculiar – but rewarding – environment.

Association leadership is like being the captain on an ocean liner. You have the boat available, the destination defined, a crew to work with and for you, the owners – who are also your clients – to satisfy and the responsibility not to hit any icebergs and reach the mainland even in stormy waters.

An association leader should be able to navigate diplomatically but firmly between all of the organization’s stakeholders, usually consisting of the executive team and the strategic partners, with a strong drive to execute and deliver, alongside with an empowering and engaging attitude.

The person taking on this role needs to be eager to stay up to date with the activities of the association members, understand their current priorities and actual needs. Being bold enough to address new challenges and take an innovative approach towards governance, change management, staff performance, and the organization’s progress toward success metrics is key. An energetic, strong leadership ensures that an association goes in the right direction, while making sure it has enough resources to meet its goals.

Community building

Leading an association also means continuously building a community, therefore engagement and networking-based mindset are crucial to forge new collaborations and to be the perfect broker for peers and members across the entire ecosystem. This intermediary function requires strong mediation and communication skills, as well as an open mind for pivoting.

Rome was not built in a day and neither are associations. Time and a nurturing environment are needed in order to grow and mature. The board, executive team, external stakeholders will feel welcomed, included if they are empowered and they will find their mentor in their leader. Synergy, mutual respect and trust between the association’s board and staff is essential in order to represent the organizations’ and its members’ mission and vision in a symbiotic and natural way. 

Moreover, the association leader must also assume a coaching role. The aim is to create an atmosphere and organization culture, where all contributors get visibility and recognition for their actions once the set goals are reached.

Peculiar Leadership

The above listed skills and competences could be recommended for most professionals in leadership roles. However, what makes association leadership peculiar is that your stakeholders are also your clients. In this regard, strong soft skills are required, such as representation, negotiation and networking competencies.

Due to the diversity of stakeholders there is also some flexibility in being able to wear different hats – sometimes simultaneously – and quickly adapt to diverse scenarios. These clients or members have different expectations and levels of involvement, nevertheless depending on the associations’ value proposition and governance model, equal attention should be dedicated to them.  Advocacy activities for the association and the members have to be harmonized and ensured that common goals of a wider community are expressed.

Communication is key in most sectors and for associations providing the right visibility for the members is essential. Organizations led by leaders with solid negotiation skills result in in-depths benefits for the community – they can solve potential conflicts smoothly.  

For exponential growth, strategic networking is also paramount. Collaboration with peers and professional networking can amplify knowledge exchange and joint value co-creation. 

Strategic thinking

Together with the association Chair, an essential task for the association leader is to be able to hear out the different suggestions and needs coming from the stakeholder/client side, structure them and formulate a common goal and message that can be efficiently represented by all the organization’s ambassadors and executed by its staff.

This can be achieved with a well thought out strategic plan, agreed on by the executive board, based on consultation with the members and accompanied by a strong business plan. 

Association leadership requires the ability to find a perfect balance: after all, you always have to navigate between your members, staff, stakeholders, while operating your day-to-day duties.

In the case of my organization, the European Network of Living Labs, the client/stakeholder-centric approach was an original asset, as the living labs themselves were originally set up to create trusted environments where the different multi-stakeholder boards can come together to co-create innovative products and services, while having the ‘end-users’ in the driver’s seat during the design process.

On a personal level, growing into the role of an association leader has been a long journey – which has not ended yet – with several milestones in my personal and professional career development, opening up new horizons. 

I believe that in order to become a great association leader it is essential to have a “roll up your sleeves” attitude, to walk the talk and to have a support system around you. Taking the time to think outside of the box will be rewarding and generate innovative solutions.

Writing about open waters, captains and ocean liners and looking back at the beginning of my professional path, being hired as Association Director of ENoLL, it did feel like being thrown into the icy ocean, being surrounded by sharks. Nevertheless, after overcoming the first shock and getting comfortable with the continuous challenges always popping up, I have become stronger, learned how to surf the waves and to enjoy them even! This wouldn’t have been possible without my amazing team and the support of our executive board and members.

Zsuzsanna Bódi is the Director of the European Network of Living Labs and a Member of the European Society of Association Executives (ESAE). For more information about ESAE, with which Boardoom has an exclusive partnership, visit

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