Author: Gavin Ellwood, Director of Ellwood Atfield. I recruit the people who talk for you.
Reputation matters. While it takes years for a representative organisation to build up a good reputation for itself and its sector, it can be shattered in just a few hours by poor leadership, unethical behaviour, or a crisis. Crises can not only involve individual members but also engulf entire sectors, where the economic and broader societal value of an industry is openly questioned.
I regularly interview Director Generals (DG), CEOs and aspiring leaders; as a headhunter in the membership sector it’s the day job. For me, there’s a clear link between strong representative organisations and strong leadership. Simply put, this means the qualities of the Director General in charge on a daily basis.
Strong association leaders have the skills of persuasion and diplomacy to broker solutions between members, multiple individuals and interest groups. They are strategic, finding consensus between members who compete with each other for market share, and between stakeholders with different cultures. They are also able to effectively handle crises, and maintain and enhance the reputation of their organisation and sector.
Our report Key Success Factors for Associations identified seven attributes of the best leaders of representative organisations. These are the key factors that really distinguish a strong leader (and, by default, a strong organisation) from an underperforming one:
- Strategic leader. Strong DGs set strategy, agree priorities and specific actions. They lead members to an ambitious but achievable outcome.
- Persuasive diplomat. Authoritarian DGs get the worst from their teams. An ability to work out compromises when members’ views differ is essential.
- Excellent communicator. Successful DGs reduce complex issues to simple explanations and positions. They can sell a message internally and externally.
- Politically savvy. DGs need to be much more political than technical in today’s world of reputation management and influence.
- Competent manager. A high-performing DG is a good people manager. A well-run association requires attention to detail, financial acumen and smooth processes.
- Energetic networker. The best DGs have an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, making new connections for their members.
- Industry expert. A successful DG will take pride in their sector and be empathetic to their members. Ideally they should have a track record in the industry’s key issues.
These results reflect my own experience that Boards tend to look first for strategic thinkers, then for first-class communicators and managers who can set strategy. More insights to this are in our 2015 survey into success factors for Association Boards.
While knowledge of an industry sector can be useful, it is not a top priority, because this can be acquired on the job and this expertise already exists in the board and membership.
Different representative organisations will give different weighting to these attributes depending on their culture, history and other specifics. However, it’s interesting that there is surprising commonality across industry sectors on what is expected of the DG.
Specialist recruitment firms are well positioned to guide the Board through agreeing the selection process, optimising governance structures and defining which skills are priorities for the job of leading a particular organisation.
Appointing a “Super DG” can bring huge benefits, but it’s critical to gain buy-in from the remaining leadership for the new appointment, and to show the new DG will complement existing skill sets within the management team.
When I encounter high-performing teams they are led by collaborative Director Generals, where results and open communications are valued. These teams engage in open debate and more frequently address critical issues, find solutions to problems, and develop innovative ideas.
Hiring the wrong DG, on the other hand, can have highly negative consequences for an organisation and cast a long shadow for the sector it represents. I have come across association teams where mistrust, criticism and poor results prevail, typically led by authoritarian leaders who stifle debate.
Representative organisations thrive or fail on the quality of their team, their ability to speak up for their sector and demonstrate value to members. The reputation of your organisation and industry could depend on identifying the right leader.
Based in London and Brussels, Ellwood Atfield is the largest firm of headhunters specialising in helping trade associations, professional and membership bodies. We recruit leaders, communications, public affairs and policy experts.