An editorial for Project Mangement World Today Web Magazine. Published here August 2000.


Musings Index

Professional Associations and the Balance of Power

There is strength in numbers. So, associations, and not-for-profit professional associations (NFPPAs) in particular, are formed by groups of individuals seeking to gain support for their particular practices by collective action. Of course it is not always quite that blatant, and altruistic motives (read Goals and Objectives) such as networking, professional development, service to the public and so on, are carefully espoused.

It has been suggested that for an association to be truly professional it must establish several functions including: a unique body of knowledge relating to the practice of the association; standards of entry and progression based on a recognized educational process; a code of conduct; a valued service to the public as well as to the profession itself; and a sanctioning organization that defines its membership categories, offers a professional designation and promotes public awareness. It goes without saying that for the organization to be successful there must be a real need for the service and a desire for members to belong. Project management is an ideal candidate.

When the association is very small and still building its base, it can be managed entirely by voluntary effort. As it grows, paid secretarial help is required to handle routine documentation. Growing further, perhaps to several thousand, the association must afford paid administrative staff to handle the professional functions described above. This staff would be led by an Executive Director (ED) and who, most likely, would also act as spokesperson, but in any case would be responsible to a Board of Directors (BoD).

The signs of strain begin to show at this point because the BoD are likely to impose more and more work on the staff, yet try to maintain hands-on control. The ED's response will be to try to increase staff numbers to cope with the work load, as well as to increase personal prestige. Now imagine the position when the organization grows to many thousand, and real power is at play! More staff, more qualified and at higher salaries can be hired with more grandiose titles. But the underlying strain between BoD and the (now) Chief Executive Officer (CEO) just increases.

The task of an NFPPA CEO is a very difficult one, and internal politics are their greatest source of frustration. They are responsible to Boards of elected volunteers, which is like being married to a dozen or so individuals each with their own motives, personal goals and desires. Then there are all the members to cope with as well. So, the issues for the CEO become how to keep the Board happy, how to keep them out of the day-to-day running of the organization and how to keep your job.

Of course there are a number of strategies to meet these challenges, like lots of committees keeping every one busy with the sense of lots of action, but it still needs management style. Two styles of CEO predominate. There are those who operate in the foreground with greater notoriety and responsibility, higher compensation and respect, and the power to accomplish goals. Then there are those who operate in the background, generally with longer tenure and security, but with less respect and recognition and higher levels of frustration in doing what they believe best.

But for the power operators, what if it were possible to disenfranchise the membership, the Board, the Executive Committee and anyone else in the chain of command? Now, it seems, it is perfectly possible with a new organizational approach known as 'Policy Governance'. Applied with skill and persistence, this concept can be used to sweep away an entire organizational heritage. Its purpose is to insist that the membership and its short-term Board representatives focus on all-new policy strategies, the implementation of which are all too far away in the future that none will see the fruits of their labors. Meantime any strategies that do survive can be readily translated in to operational tactics that serve any short term need.

Of course, if the association is to survive, it must still be managed with integrity, honesty and transparency, but no wonder that policy governance is so popular with NFPPA CEOs.

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