We caught up with Phil James, Chief Executive of the Institute of Leadership & Management and a judge at this year’s Association Excellence Awards to ask for his words of wisdom for fellow Association leaders:

What are the most important issues currently facing associations?

We live in an increasingly complex and uncertain world, where leadership and management practices of the past are not enough to equip people in any organisation to navigate to future success. This is true especially for associations, whose role it is to guide, assist, and add value to their members and member organisations. For me, one word sums up the primary challenge for our association sector: relevance; the need to remain valuable, trusted and indispensable to the people we serve.

What advice would you offer associations on how to overcome these issues?

It’s vital to remain open to challenge and change. The moment we sip into being an ‘ivory tower’ institution, where we’re overly concerned with our own processes and procedures, the closer we get to becoming out of touch with what’s happening more broadly in the world and therefore becoming less relevant to our members. Of course we have to have robust systems and a keen eye on quality, but we must remain curious to what could be better, what we’re being asked for by clients and what might be just around the corner.

How have you successfully maintained and grown your associations membership?

It’s an ongoing challenge, but membership is growing. In part, I think that’s down to getting the basics right – clear information, great products and services and friendly, accessible customer service. It’s also been about building profile, showing why we exist and how we’re making a difference. We focus a lot on engagement with our members – close, personal conversational engagement. That’s difficult and expensive for a large membership base, but absolutely vital in a day and age where we tend to assume that simple digital broadcasting of our messages will be enough to reach people and generate a sense of involvement in our community.

What commercial projects have really assisted in this?

We’ve invested in digital technology, but have been very careful to back this up with a genuinely personal touch. Everything we do leads to a conversation and we’re working hard to keep a great balance between great content, slick digital delivery and an authentically human touch.

How has digitalisation impacted your association, both the work you do and how you engage with members?

There’s no doubt that our digital products and services have driven up engagement, since they have enabled people to use what we have around-the-clock, on-the-move in ways that are highly convenient to them in that moment. For leadership and management, that’s essential, I think, to take account of the unpredictable events that happen during the day that lead people towards us for advice, support and inspiration. So, better, more personalised service is one aspect. Digital technology has also improved our intelligence about how people are using their membership and what more they’d like us to be doing. For us, digital technology is an enabler, but not a silver bullet solution. We’re mostly concerned with connecting people through conversation and not replacing personal connections with technology. Leadership is a relational, human concept and too many of today’s organisations lose sight of the human dimension. We’re out to change that, not to replicate it.

As a judge for the 2019 Association Excellence Awards, why do you feel awards schemes such as the awards are valuable for associations?

The Association Excellence Awards are brilliant for shining a light on great ideas, practices and achievements, providing inspiration and motivation to anyone working in the sector. They’re a way of really galvanizing the collaborative spirit that we attempt to engender for our own body of members and remind us that we’re part of something bigger and more vital to society than we sometimes realise. I’m really looking forward to playing my part in judging this year’s entries.