Management and Leadership in Professional Institutes: A Comparative Malaysian Experience

The management and leadership scene in Malaysian professional institutes, trade bodies and sports associations is really a mixed bag! One would naturally expect a professional institute to be well managed and led by a team of honorary officers who understand the need to lead with wisdom. Likewise, it is also the case with established trade bodies and sports associations. However, this is not always the case. There have been and there still are a number of instances when these professional institutes, trade bodies and sports associations have got themselves into a messy situation.

A Lack of Role Clarity

One can safely assume that all these professional institutes, trade bodies and sports associations have been properly registered with the Registrar of Societies or with the Companies Commission of Malaysia. In addition, these bodies all have a constitution that spells out their main objectives and the respective roles of the honorary officers and the staff employed to carry out the work of the body concerned.

However, what happens in reality is that ever so often the employees of these institutes, bodies and associations are seldom allowed to get on with the task of managing their respective bodies in a professional way. Why is that so?

This is because these inept leaders have failed to fully understand and then clarify their respective roles for the smooth functioning of their institutes, trade bodies and sports associations. In some cases, the presidents act as the de facto executive directors of the body concerned, relegating the person in place to the role of a mere clerk!  When other like minded executive committee members see this happening, they too get in on the act and soon that body becomes a laughing stock for all to observe.

Shortly thereafter, teams emerge trying to seize control of the body and you inherit a peculiar situation where you have ‘ all the president’s men ‘ and also ‘ a vice president’s team ‘ bent on seizing power. The seeds of confusion and destruction have now been sown. In this sort of fight for power within the association, employees unwittingly become mere pawns. I know of a case where an executive director lost his job because he was forced to take sides! Unfortunately for him, the side he took lost and as a consequence, he was unceremoniously sacked.

Desire to Micromanage

This is another sad fact bedevilling local professional institutes, trade bodies and sports associations because oftentimes, the president and / or the vice president or a committee chairperson takes it upon himself to micromanage the employees. It is understandable in some cases, where the employees concerned may be junior executives and lack the necessary confidence, expertise and experience to take matters forward on their own.

What is clearly unacceptable is the need to micromanage the individual when the employee concerned is a qualified and competent manager or executive director. Somehow, it seems, many honorary officers of these institutes, bodies and associations feel it is their right to do so by virtue of the office they hold. If that alone is not enough, some of these honorary officers talk down and are downright rude in the way they interact with these employees.

In a number of cases that I am aware of, these misguided honorary officers even have the audacity to issue instructions to employees without the knowledge of the manager or executive director. This inconsiderate and unprofessional act of bypassing the established chain of command then puts the manager or executive director in a very difficult position. Ultimately, he is responsible for the employees under his command! When confronted about this unhealthy and unnecessary intrusion, these honorary officers have the cheek to say that they are trying to be helpful. However, if and when a foul up occurs, they will immediately disclaim responsibility and heap the blame on the hapless employee!

Set Policy Direction and Make Decisions

The role of the president and executive committee (exco) is to set policy direction, plan for future activities and programmes and discuss issues of importance that impact on the institute, body or association.  During these meetings, they should also arrive at certain decisions. These action points should be clearly stated and the minutes of the committee meeting should be sent out to the committee soon thereafter.

It is now the turn of the manager or executive director to implement the action points. If there is a need to draft a letter to a key official or government department, then he should do so. If there is a need to issue a news release for the print and electronic media on a crucial subject matter, then he should do so with care. In addition, he should seek the opinion of the president or in his absence, the vice president on the draft and thereafter incorporate any amendments to the revised news release.

By following the above scenario, the roles and responsibilities of the president, executive committee and staff are clearly defined. It should be the responsibility of the manager or executive director to issue instructions to employees who report to him. It is counter productive and disrespectful when the president or exco ignore established protocol and simply do as they please. This is why my earlier point about the lack of role clarity was made.

Some Establish Second Careers Here

If one makes a random check of these institutes, bodies and associations, he will note that many of these so called leaders of professional institutes, trade bodies and sports associations are actually second line professionals, business leaders and politicians.

As second line professionals, they have not made the kind of headway career wise that they had wished for. Likewise, as up and coming business leaders or as aspiring politicians, these professional institutes, trade associations and sports bodies offer an alternative stage for this individuals to showcase their leadership qualities.

For professional institutes, there are always many issues that merit their close attention, scrutiny and comment from time to time. When these appears in the business pages of the print media or you are seen on a television talk show, your visibility increases and hopefully you come to the notice of certain powerful people who can accelerate your career progression. Likewise too, for business leaders from trade groups for this affords them another opportunity to shine and be noticed. But clearly the biggest winners here are up and coming politicians who head sports associations. Sports news attracts wide daily coverage and hence heading such a sport body provides one with the kind of regular on-going publicity that money can’t buy!

For all these individuals, their association with professional institutes, trade bodies and sports associations have enabled them to establish alternate career pathways. They become well known through their association with these bodies and not through their chosen careers.

Think Outside the Box

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. I am referring to the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, CIMA Malaysia Division, especially from 1990 to 2000. When CIMA Malaysia Branch applied for and was successful in gaining divisional status, it also gained the right to appoint a divisional director. CIMA Malaysia Divisional Council went against conventional wisdom and chose to appoint not an accountant but a public relations professional as its divisional director. Many of my counterparts were surprised that I was not an accountant!

The fact that CIMA Malaysia Divisional Council chose to think outside the box was for strategic reasons. It wanted a non accountant divisional director to be able to look at the issues facing that body and provide unbiased opinions and viewpoints. My views were regularly sought out at divisional council meetings and I was encouraged to speak out on issues that concern the profession. This is what being professional is really all about.

The Way Forward

These true blue leaders, especially the distinguished Dato Seri Raja Abdul Aziz Raja Salim, the late, great Lim Eng Seng and the straight talking, no nonsense Roland Selvanayagam had the inner confidence, foresight and wisdom to let me get on with the job at hand. Through out my decade with CIMA Malaysia, I had the extremely good fortune of working with these far sighted divisional presidents and divisional council members who actually encouraged me to get on with the job. Their advice to me was to ensure that Portland Place ( CIMA’s then headquarters in London ) was pleased with our performance. They were also always readily available for consultation and advice. Never once did these leaders ever try to micromanage me or my fellow colleagues.

It takes intelligence, good sense and guts to think outside the box and to truly understand your role in an organisation. When honorary officers understand their key role and work sincerely to fulfil these roles, then the stage is set for a fully workable partnership between the honorary officers and the staff employed at the institute. That was the case at CIMA Malaysia from 1990 to 2000.  I remain grateful for the privilege of working alongside these leaders. Those were the ten best years of my professional working life.

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6 thoughts on “Management and Leadership in Professional Institutes: A Comparative Malaysian Experience

  1. Hi Ben

    This was our equivalent of what they refer to in football as the Golden Generation – Australia had theirs, Belgium having theirs now and Iceland next.

    Although we served ( and led), we also learnt so much about doing things right.

    Rgds

    Roland

  2. An excellent article which I appreciated reading and have in turn shared with the readers of my Facebook page dedicated to people development, called Evelyn Samuel’s page. Wither Leadership?

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