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Everybody panic! (Or, why the looming association leadership gap isn’t the end of the world)

By Meredith Low

If you’re in a leadership position, you’ve definitely got stress. And the world often advises people in stressful positions to practice balance. Maybe it’s a sort of metaphorical work-life balance, or sometimes we talk about practices like yoga where the balance is more literal. In any event, if you can stand on one leg while conducting a conference call and texting your kid’s teacher, apparently that’s the path to success!

However, a lot of this advice about balance tends to focus solely on the responsibilities and capacities of the individual. Practice self-care, meditate, life-hack your day. And that’s why it usually leaves us all feeling like balance is just one more thing we’re not making time for.

The problem is that sometimes it’s the system and the structures around us that need recalibration. In a context where chief staff officers (CSOs: that is, executive directors or CEOs) of associations – or those thinking they might want to become CSOs someday – are probably already working about as hard as they can, that’s something we should think about. Because there just aren’t enough of those people who are ready, willing and able to do the job and that scarcity looks like it is only going to get worse.

I’d like to deconstruct the looming (or already upon us) leadership crisis in the association sector from a more structural perspective. This crisis is partly about CSO job design and partly about the systems that support the CSOs. And there are, indeed, some ways people in different roles can help design a better CSO job and support CSOs. I hope this spurs you on to think about what you can do too, whether you’re a CSO, a potential CSO, or someone who supports CSOs from inside or outside your association.


After almost a decade working in the association sector, I know quite a few people. And within my acquaintance, the number of people I know who are currently CSOs but thinking they’re probably retiring within five years is quite a few. And, more to the point, they’re a lot more numerous than the people I know who are aiming for the CSO job. That pattern means we all have work to do.

Let’s look first at the roots of this situation. The CSO is, I’d argue, the absolutely pivotal role in an association. They are the only employee reporting directly to the board. They are the most important source of information for the board. They set the tone for the entire organization. They set priorities, review staff performance, guide volunteers and allocate resources. They are the default for anything that others (other staff, board chairs, etc.) may not be able or willing to do. This is the role where the buck stops. And the job is getting far more complex.

VUCA is an acronym that strategists have borrowed from the military to describe situations that pose special challenges. It stands for:

• Volatile – the range of potential outcomes is wider, and not in predictable ways

• Uncertain – our crystal balls are malfunctioning. We are less able to predict what is going to happen if we do X or Y

• Complex – more issues are complex, with multiple factors and unknowns. Rules of thumb or even algorithms can be useful for complicated problems, but not complex ones. There’s simply too much going on; there are too many variables

• Ambiguous – reasonable people can – and do! – disagree on what a set of facts might mean. The signals are objectively unclear

As it becomes increasingly a VUCA world out there for associations, the CSOs have to deal with it all. Some examples:

•  Advocacy in the age of fake news, polarization and Facebook

•  Member engagement in the age of LinkedIn, microattention spans and “what’s in it for me?”

•  Operations in the age of ransomware, multiple technology platforms and cannabis in the workplace

• Board relations in the era of increasing governance expectations, constituency expectations and volunteer fatigue

• Business models in the age of sponsor rebellion, employer cost-cutting and “there’s only one member” as a response to provincial/national organizational infighting

It seems safe to predict that this job is only going to get more challenging. Not necessarily in bad ways, but in ways we should take seriously. And in ways that might deter people from taking it on.

Compounding the issue, there’s a supply problem. The sheer numbers aren’t friendly, since there are far fewer people entering their prime CSO years (probably somewhere between 40 and 60, although of course there are plenty of individual exceptions) than there were 20 years ago. And since all industries are facing similar issues, it’s not like associations can simply assume they can attract talent from elsewhere.

And then there’s the challenge of attracting from within, which can also be tough. After all, other staff may look at the CSO job and think, “You couldn’t pay me enough to deal with that board.” Or, “I just do not want that level of responsibility and stress.”

So, if a leadership crisis is coming, what can we expect in the sector? For starters, individuals will be more stressed and less happy. CSOs themselves feel the pressure of their roles acutely. Other staff are affected by all these issues but have limited ability to influence them. Board members will have a hard time filling leadership roles – and may have to do it repeatedly if they don’t make a solid hire the first time.

It also means that the associations and the sector more generally, are in for a hard time. Lacking people in key leadership positions, it stands to reason that the organizations will suffer, which, given all the other association challenges, means some will be significantly affected or may even simply fail, because they’ll have inadequate, inconsistent or intermittent leadership in place.

Overall, this is an organizational context that risks being thrown out of balance. It may seem a bit bleak, but what might we do about all this? Plenty, I’d suggest. Although what you might do depends on who you are.


•  Don’t be a superhero. Do your job in a sustainable way now. That may mean managing your board’s expectations aggressively. It may mean getting more resources in place. It may mean tackling your personal work habits so you set boundaries that work for you. If you’re burning out doing this job, are you just inefficient? Maybe! But far more likely you’re throwing yourself into organizational challenges in ways that are unsustainable and which won’t do you, your association or your successor any favours in the long run. Have enough faith in your abilities to design the job in a way that will actually work for a mere mortal.

• Follow the campsite rule “leave it better than you found it.” This means tackling the thorny political, governance, strategic or human resources issues that require your leadership, and which should not be allowed to persist. Here I’m talking about:

    o That project with the strange and ineffective governance model – which has somehow been going on as a “pilot” for a decade

    o A cluster of employees who are creating a toxic workplace for everyone else

    o Committees or pet projects which take up volunteer time but contribute nothing of value to the association

•  Build a legacy, not an empire. If all roads lead to you, if all relationships, all approvals and all communications go through you, what happens if you win the lottery and head for Tahiti? You’re already crucial; why are you setting yourself up to be completely indispensable? This is both about taking the time to make the tacit explicit (e.g. writing things down in manuals, handbooks, etc.) and about building something that will outlast you. Bring your team to meetings, train them up, let them make their own mistakes, delegate what you need to keep in-house, outsource what you don’t, and so on. It takes effort, and maybe some humility, but it’s needed.


• Support your CSO! CSO job design is your problem too. CSO burnout is your failure, too. So you need to make sure there are regular discussions about what the CSO needs in general and what they need from you. Fund professional development, have discussions about job design and workload – and make sure you understand your own role, in part so you aren’t meddling and contributing to their problems.

• Put structures in place to support the organization. If you have appropriate-for-you governance frameworks, strategic and operational plans, budgeting processes and succession plans in place, that does a lot to help everyone do their job, including and maybe especially the CSO. If everything is ad hoc, that’s an exhausting organization to run. The CSO should suggest these things – support them if they do. And if they don’t suggest them, have a serious conversation with them about the organization you need to build.

Be open minded. Should you be rethinking your hiring criteria to focus on the core capabilities you need and then casting your net wider? This could increase your odds and perhaps help you bring in fresh views from other fields (although you’d then need to support them!).

• Be willing to think beyond. If you are really having difficulty attracting, supporting and retaining CSOs, what deeper changes do you need to consider? Merger? Changing your organizational strategy to use more external providers such as an AMC or a consultant (for operations, for events, for full management services)?


• Apply as soon as you’re ready and maybe a little sooner. In the context I’ve described, will boards get everything they’re advertising for? It is unlikely. If you have about half of the criteria met and you think it’s an interesting job, throw your hat in the ring. It doesn’t mean you have to take it if it’s offered. But go for opportunities you think might be out there. (And let your network know you’re looking! I get asked weekly if I know someone for X position. If I know you but I don’t know you’re interested in this kind of role, how do I know to suggest you?)

• Design the job before you start. The person who has to design the job is you. Look at the characteristics of the organization, look at yourself and decide what you will need to succeed. Don’t pretend everything you need is already there. And don’t hesitate to have the confidence to manage the board’s expectations. You know already to negotiate for salary, vacation and benefits, but be creative in what you ask for up front and even later on:

    o Coaching?

    o Training?

    o Mentorship with another association leader?

    o A listening tour in the industry?

    o A stronger senior team?

    o A condition that the board will do a governance review or tackle another known issue within a certain period of time?

• Cultivate a network of leaders and ambitious people who aren’t quite CSOs yet. Keep in touch, get to know people. Take the long view when it comes to your network. You never know who’s going to know about a job or be on a hiring committee. And, more importantly, you never know who will just have left the organization you’re interested in.

• Don’t take the poisoned chalice. Sometimes people take jobs they really want, but their timing is awful. An example of that in Canadian political history is Kim Campbell, who became prime minister when it was already clear her party was going to experience an historic defeat in the next election. Maybe she has no regrets about that, but taking a leadership role where you’re set up to fail is just not the way to get into the top job and stay at that level. If you sense during the interview process that the position is just fundamentally not good, no matter what support you negotiate for yourself, wait for the right one to come along.


• Be a strong advisor. More CSOs are going to get into the role without knowing parts of the organization’s work or even their own role very well. Even if your direct client is elsewhere in the organization (e.g. if you’re an event management company and you usually deal with the association’s events specialist), be able to communicate the work you do so the CSO understands the value. This isn’t necessarily about you versus your competitor; it may be just about educating the CSO on your service generally. Understand the value you provide and where it fits into the organization overall and be ready to explain that at the CSO level.

• Be creative in your service models. If CSOs are more challenged, how might you fill these gaps in their experience, or solve problems they have? Could you coach CSOs? Train them? Create whole new services to take some issues off their minds?

• Can you offer senior part-time expertise? Some CSOs are experimenting with part-time CFO models, so they get senior-level advisors on their management teams, without needing to be big enough to have a full-time CFO. There is a lot of opportunity here for someone with senior experience in various areas of association leadership. The biggest gap here that I see is in technology – associations are craving high-level technology advice that’s product-agnostic (not from vendors of specific platforms or products) but they aren’t able to hire that talent directly due to size and competing demands. How might that gap be filled?

I know so many people who really love their jobs as CSOs. They find it rewarding, challenging in the best possible ways, and deeply fulfilling. They really thrive as that linchpin person in the organization, working with their boards and teams and volunteers to achieve great things for their associations. And we need people to thrive in that job because the role is so important. So, what else might we do to support the existing leaders, the incoming leaders and everyone else, to make sure the association sector has the visionary, practical and wise leadership it needs now and in the tumultuous future? What can you think of?

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