I Admit It; I am a CSAE Competency Zealot!

I was so excited when CSAE revamped their competencies for association executives a few years ago and charted them into 5 levels of detailed Learning Outcomes. I love the way the competencies are illustrated; it is simple yet comprehensive at the same time. The member value piece is the bullseye that every association wants to hit, and they can only do so by having the three surrounding areas of a) establish organizational direction, b) manage people and c) manage operations work equally well. To me those three are like a wheel that is perfectly balanced so that it spins easily. And the outer circle of governance is what embraces the whole package and makes it hum. To carry on the wheel analogy, the governance piece is like having snow tires. They make your car run smoothly consistently over time, and when you hit a snowy patch boy are you glad you have good governance, and snow tires, in place.

Competencies for Association Executives according to the website “is intended to provide executives with a guide to performance in senior leadership positions within the not-for-profit sector. While the size, objectives and budget of associations vary, the fundamentals of the role do not.”

The competency document covers the critical tasks and key outcomes of the chief staff officer in the not-for-profit sector but, in addition to the competencies, it states that the most effective association executives also:

  • Develop domain/sector expertise
  • Commit to lifelong learning
  • Are open to change
  • Acquire the skills of:
    • Strategic and critical thinking
    • Interpersonal communication
    • Relationship management
    • Coaching and feedback
    • Self-management

Let me illustrate how the competencies have helped me, especially in that last bullet of Self Management.

One way I have used the competencies is to set objectives. In my former role at the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association, we had a governance change that had my position move from reporting directly to the CEO of the CBA with a dotted line to my Executive Committee to a solid line to the Executive Committee and dotted line to the CEO of the CBA. To prepare for this move I used the competencies to prepare a presentation on my objectives for the year. Then I worked with two officers of the Executive Committee to narrow those down into smart goals for the year ahead and the rest were just table stakes of what we had to do as an association.

It turns out that this was not the only time I would be doing this. When I started my new job at the International Alliance of ALS/MND Associations, they had never had an executive director before. I had to set my own objectives and I thought there was no better place to start than the competencies from CSAE. I didn’t just use the competencies to set my own objectives, I also used them for the organizational objectives. I layered our strategic plan onto the competencies like a matrix to develop organizational Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that would work for 1 to 3 years.

This works across organizations too. When I started at the Alliance a former colleague of mine, Christine Staley, had just moved into an executive director role at Dyslexia Canada. Dyslexia Canada had been a completely volunteer organization and Christine was the first staff member. When any association is in growth mode and transitioning from an operational to a governance board with staff in place, you need to be really intrapreneurial and develop all sorts of policies, procedures, and even make simple operational decisions. Christine and I were in very similar positions at the same time, where we had to fill in a lot of blanks. We used the competency framework at the next level down to go through each line. For example, when we looked at Optimize Governance, we went down all three layers. What I mean by that is that each of the 5 competencies are broken into 44 learning outcomes that have even further depth at the third level:

“Optimize Governance” is the first level, “Ensure effective and efficient governance” is the second level and the third level is the micro detail that really digs in. For the board competencies, Christine and I compared notes:  did we have conflict of interest policies, what did each of us do for orientation, how did we do nominations, how operational versus strategic were our boards… you get the idea! Where possible we shared templates and ideas, and this was such a valuable exercise for me and hopefully for Christine as well. I believe strongly in not reinventing the wheel. Benchmarking against other CSAE members and the competencies are a great framework for avoiding reinvention. I have used this methodology since then in situations when others have taken on a new executive director role, and I always get something out of it that I can use for my organization going forward.

And the last example I will give of where the competencies have been useful to me is more personal. I learned a lot of what I know about management from my Dad. He was a pioneer in the tourism marketing area, starting at Ontario Travel in the 1970s and retiring as the Deputy Minister of Tourism and Recreation in 1985.

He always told me that even when he wasn’t looking for a job, he used his birthday as a milestone and updated his resume each year. This was his opportunity to reflect on his leadership, his learning opportunities and where he wanted to go next. He set the perfect example for me to use the competencies as a framework for my reflection each year as an executive director. So now, once a year, I try to sit down and do exactly that.

I do a personal reflection on prior learning to identify personal competency challenges and areas for improvement. This is similar to CAE 500 where students delve deeper into personal development through a learning project designed to hone their skills while facilitating development and growth for their organization.

I encourage each of you to print out the competency list and take a quiet moment to go through and evaluate both yourself and your organizations against it. It will be time well spent and give you a roadmap of where you want to go over time!

Cathy Cummings is the Executive Director of the International Alliance of ALS MND Associations, This role perfectly combines her passion for Association leadership and a cause close to her heart, people living with ALS.  Connect with Cathy on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter.