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From Purpose to Impact Through Motivated Staff and Visionary Leaders

Like any other organisation, an association's success or failure will depend on the strength of their leaders. From executive decision making about business strategy to the establishment of an organisational culture where staff and volunteers feel included, empowered and inspired to contribute, strong leadership ensures that an association has the direction and resources needed to deliver on its goals and implement its mission. By Chloe Menhinick & Joana Visa

Associations today are operating in a complex and disruptive environment where it is increasingly hard to successfully manage change and achieve objectives without losing their long-term perspective. Confronted in parallel to this, with the formidable task of meeting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), association leaders and their staff have a distinct set of challenges requiring them to align organisational goals with changing member behaviours and expectations. The scale of the challenges faced require associations to innovate and inspire not only to ensure that they can keep engaging with their traditional membership audiences but increasingly to find ways to navigate new territories and form partnerships with nontraditional actors.

These challenges are already pushing the skills and expertise within associations into new realms of professionalisation. With the opportunities that associations have to contribute to the development of robust civil society and the challenges they will need to overcome in order to continue driving progress in achieving the SDGs, transformational leadership will be key.

Transformational association leaders can move their members beyond immediate self-interest through influence, inspiration and intellectual inspiration. They are able to elevate their members’ ideals for achievement beyond the individual to the level of the organisation and, most importantly, the society. However, in order to reach their broader visions, associations need to also ensure they retain a robust, engaged, highly skilled and motivated staff. This is no easy feat especially so given the lower salaries, and highly demanding roles typically associated with the association sector.


Nonetheless, as we see the continued emergence (particularly from generations Y and Z) of a workforce characterised by altruism, conscientiousness and civic virtues, the association sector has all the potential to become a highly sought-after industry for young professionals to enter. The demand for outstanding talent is going to increase with time, and so is its scarcity in the talent market. The only way to stay competitive will be by ensuring that the right people are hired, kept happy and motivated. Retention of such talent will require associations to offer staff a strong career development pathway as well as an organisational culture which aligns with their personal values. Understanding what employees want and what drives them (more on this below) should become business priority in order to survive in the unpredictable times coming up.

Therefore, as competition for highly skilled and committed professionals increases, cultivation of a deep trust in both the leadership and an association’s governing frameworks and policies will be required to fuel an intrinsic alignment of staff with your organisation and in doing so provide the strong foundations your association will need in order to drive success.


Adopting a culture of transformational leadership will nourish individual leadership potential. This focus on staff is crucial since an association’s staff and volunteer leaders hold the key to turning the association’s goals into reality. Transformational leadership which fosters autonomy and challenging work is increasingly an important factor in job satisfaction and retention of staff.

Ensuring that your staff - no matter what their role or position - sustain the motivation to overcome challenges, and the inspiration to push themselves and your organisation to deliver the very best, requires an organisational culture stimulated by the leadership and supported and facilitated through HR frameworks which encourage transformational leadership to permeate throughout all layers of association staff.

A culture of transformational leadership can also help unleash organisational leadership potential, as it seeks to create a positive change in those who follow and so can - and should - be applied to the organisation as a whole. Members of transformational teams care more about each other, intellectually stimulate each other, inspire each other and identify with the team’s goals.

Organizational policies and practices can promote employee empowerment, creative flexibility and esprit-de-corps. Crucially in the association space the power of change we are seeking to establish will be accelerated and amplified if association leaders focus on unleashing the leadership potential within their staff.

In the end, a culture of transformational leadership will reduce the disruptive effects of leadership changes, with the latter often bringing periods of intense disruption to membership programmes, staff morale and often risk stalling progress as the staff and leadership need to re-focus and recalibrate. Embracing transformational leadership development throughout your organisation increases the possibility of finding successive leaders from within existing staff who are fully aligned with your organisation’s values, who are already adept at converting the vision and mission of your organisation into reality and most importantly who have developed and nurtured trust amongst peers and members alike.

In this context, the benefits of leadership development programmes will impact all facets of an association - from employee and member engagement and staff retention to succession planning. Achieving this, however, is no easy feat. Associations need to place the development of transformational leadership as a cornerstone of their organisation’s strategic plan and ensure that systems and policies are developed to ensure association staff and leaders maximise their transformational leadership potential. Human Resources plays a strategically important role in delivering these ambitions.


Outside of the association sector, in recent years, HR has undergone dynamic shifts in its roles and functions and has increasingly become a significant influence in shaping organisations. An HR manager now wears multiple hats, and these roles vary based on the need of the hour from being an employee advocate, a change agent and a strategic partner. This includes designing specific programmes and strategies to ensure an engaged workplace, happy employees, reward strategies that retain talent and ensuring there is diversity and inclusion in every sense. Similar shifts in the role of HR are only slowly entering the association sector. Hence, the first crucial step will be for associations to give due recognition to the vital role that HR plays in the organisation's strategic planning and operationalisation.

Finding one’s own purpose and identifying the path through which this purpose will be put to use is key to accelerating the growth of your staff and deepening their impact, in both their professional and personal lives. Aligning your staff with your organisation’s goals, with your vision and your mission is therefore another crucial step towards achieving the highest levels of motivation and inspiration. Here, HR plays a vital role in helping executives find and define their leadership purpose and put it to use no matter what part of the career ladder they are on.

Indeed, the potential for transformational leadership begins at the early stages of one’s career path. And in order to create an environment in which transformation leadership can be nourished, a long-term trajectory for leadership development should be established. This will, in turn, reinforce a holistic approach to leadership development which touches all levels of staff and will ensure that staff at all stages of their career path have the opportunity to develop and stimulate their leadership potential. Moving forward, associations need to devote more resources and energy to supporting and scaling the development of transformational leadership capabilities of all their staff. This will require HR to review staff recruitment, training and development as well as an overhaul of organisational HR policies to create the frameworks necessary to support leadership development.

A health-check of your association’s HR frameworks should include a review of the following four crucial aspects.

1. Does your organization have a proactive succession planning policy in place? - Succession planning is a procedure through which an organisation make sure that the employees are recruited to fill in all the key roles, also ensure that no key role has been left open.

2. Does your organisation act as an advocate for your top-tier staff?

3. Are you focusing sufficiently on employee development to mentor and nourish your junior staff? and

4. Do you have an active diversity and inclusion strategy?

With associations today facing the dual challenge of ensuring that the interests of the organisation and the member remain aligned but also that the staff of the association remain engaged, motivated and above all inspired, the journey to becoming a truly a transformational organisation will take work, introspection and growth.

Are HR of associations who serve as custodians of culture, lead through example and align culture with core business goals ready to lead the way?


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