Working in corporate, professional bodies and membership organisations

Elisa Nardi, Partner of The LSL Group, shares her fascinating insights on the similarities and differences between the Corporate world and Membership Bodies.

Working corporately

Working in the corporate world brings opportunity, challenge and reward. Over many decades it undoubtedly offers a fulfilling career path. While corporate businesses vary greatly in size and complexity, they also exist under different legal constructs. Public limited companies, private companies limited by shares, private companies limited by guarantee, a mutual that is ‘for profit’ but without shareholders. There are many others beside.

Professional bodies and membership organisations

Equally there is great difference and complexity, between professional bodies, (the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS®) or the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) to membership organisations like The Trade Union Congress (TUC) or the European Union (EU).

Making the transition 

It wasn’t until I started to wind down from a three-decade corporate career in the public limited space, that I began to mix up my constructs – first as a non-executive board trustee of a private London university, then as an entrepreneur and owner of a private company limited by shares and more recently as a board non-executive for a large, complex membership organisation.  The transition between these different organisations has been fascinating, frustrating and full of learning! More than anything I have come to realise that if these different industry archetypes took the time to work together more closely, more often, there would be some wonderful exchanges of experience and wisdom.

Lessons from both sides of the fence

As someone steeped in corporate ways of working, it’s perhaps not surprising that I find it easy to summarise what the big, listed corporate world has taught me. There is an ebb and flow, a rhythm and consistency – highs and lows, to corporate life that repeats itself. As I get deeper into professional body/membership working, I’m finding some significant differences and some surprising overlaps.

Differences and overlaps

1.   Success comes down to putting people first

Success and failure have taught me that if you don’t treat people well, no amount of great advertising, promotions or add on services will make your business durable in the long term.  So many companies put customers first. Customers are to be served above all else.

I know that sounds totally logical in so many ways – and of course a customer centred strategy is perfectly acceptable. But to me it’s blindingly obvious – if you don’t look after your employees as a number one priority, you cannot possibly hope that they will look after the people they serve – customers, professionals, clients or members.

Some perhaps have got by in the past, but the day of reckoning is upon us.  This last year is a wakeup call to everyone who hasn’t yet quite grasped how pivotal employee wellbeing is. Without your people onside, motivated, healthy and happy your customers and members won’t stay around for long.

I’d like to see professional bodies and membership organisations do more.  In some, people aren’t always spoken about as people – they are employees, or worse, still carry the label ‘staff’.  While it doesn’t follow that this means these types of associations don’t care about looking after their people, in my experience there is still some catching up to do with the corporates.

2.   Like it or not, you have to keep up with the pace of change

Corporates have been talking about the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world for decades. It’s just not new news anymore.  The old adage that ‘the only constant in life is change’ certainly summarised much of my three-decade experience.  When you’re beholden to shareholders, analysts and investors, you don’t have too much time to delay decision-making.  You can’t wait until next year’s AGM to make a change to your Articles of Association and Byelaws, such that you can work differently or simplify something – you’d be dead in water if you did.

Both listed, private and mutual corporates have to keep up with the pace of change – and technically be riding the crest of wave getting ahead of the competition. These types of organisations need to be fleet of foot. They need to be agile, looking outward-in as much as inward-out.  Professional bodies and membership organisations – especially those steeped in history, often have extremely complex committee structures and ‘laws’ that cannot be changed quickly, just because it makes good sense to do so.

Instead, committees must debate change and change must pass through a complex gating process. Charting a course through this complexity requires unrivalled levels of patience and tenacity. The problem is, by the time the change has been made, there’s a good chance the world has already moved on.

3.   The best ways of working, tend to be the simplest

Success isn’t about making everything more complex – more policies, more procedures, more steps, stages, widgets, options.  That doesn’t mean solutions don’t require complex problem solving or that some technologies won’t need astrophysicists to make things work!

Organisations thrive when they are easy to navigate.  When the ways of working are simple and clear, people get on with what they are supposed to be doing.  More often than not when bells and whistles are added to systems, when overlaps in responsibilities and endless red tape exist, this only serves to slow organisations down.

These are challenges for all the organisation types we are talking about – professional bodies, membership organisations and corporates. In a cutthroat world where new entrants and disruptors are ready to eat your lunch – you need to move fast and make work easy.  Some have learned this and stayed adaptable. Others learned it on their way to oblivion.

4.   You have to take calculated risks, or risk failure

When working in a listed business that trades shares, you live life on the edge.  Despite what might really be going on inside your organisation you are forever living under the shadow of quarterly reporting, searching to meet, or better still exceed, the expectations of the market. One false move, one set of results that are poorer than expected and the value of your business (and therefore its sustainability) goes out the window.

Listed businesses require sharp minds and people who are willing (before the chips are down and the numbers have gone south) to take calculated risks. While having the courage to do this might strike fear into some, the reality is that little thrives without some sort of calculated risk-taking.  The corporate environment moves quickly because it has to. However, standing still or moving slowly is rarely an option for any type of organisation.

5.   Purpose is as important as profit

Long before 2020’s devastating social and economic difficulties, organisations were waking up to the fact that pursuing purpose, in addition to pursuing profit, was time well spent.  People want to join purposeful organisations. Employees want to do meaningful work.  While organisations will always struggle to survive without being able to pay for themselves, the simple pursuit of profit above all else is thankfully becoming a relic of the past.

Corporates are recognising the role they play in their communities. Social issues are no longer problems for local and national government to fix.  Organisations can no longer be distanced from doing more than making money (although some still do that, above all else, rather well).

This pursuit of purpose is often something professional bodies and membership organisations are rather good at. Often, they are the mouthpiece for professionals. They might be the trade union standing up for worker rights. Many are ahead of the curve in standing for something that is greater than themselves – that serves others over self-interest.  When they are able to do this with impact, their power is mighty. Corporates could certainly learn from them. 

Similarity rather than difference 

There are so many similarities between the corporate world and the professional body/membership world. Life isn’t so different in these entities. People don’t want such widely different things.

People want to be successful. People want to do right by their customers/members. People want to be relevant in the world – adding value, if necessary, through the pursuit of profit, but also to deliver on mission and purpose. People want to endure, not exist in a brief moment.

Professional body and membership organisations often need to behave in the same way as corporates.  They need leaders to set strategy, define the way of operating and allocate resources.  They need good governance to ensure people behave in moral and ethical ways.  They need systems, data, procedures, policies, and guidelines to operate effectively.

If culture is toxic, corporates, professional bodies and membership organisations all suffer the same.

What to be aware of:

Heightened political antennae 

Many professional bodies and membership organisations are representing the voice of the professionals they serve – be they doctors, lawyers, nurses, car owners, dog lovers or peacekeepers!  It’s natural that in acting as a mouthpiece for others, there will be far more attention paid to political views and opinions.  And I’m not just talking about big ‘P’ political views – I’m talking about taking an active stand on issues of professional relevance and importance.

Because of this demand, professional bodies and membership organisations are often far more ‘highly geared’ when it comes to political debate. Being tuned into this rhetoric is crucial.  While a corporate person might brush off the conversation as just that – rhetoric, what you begin to understand in professional bodies and membership organisations is that it’s important for this debate to be heard.  People need to have their say (even if they are saying the same as the next person). This isn’t about collaboration – it’s about being given a platform on which to ‘stand’ for something and take that commitment seriously.

A corporate person will need reserves of patience for this.  You cannot swiftly move on because something has already been said or the answer seems obvious. You cannot condemn the debate because others might want to soapbox the opinions they care so passionately about.  If you don’t have the patience and the judgement to know when to listen and allow a debate to breathe, you’re better staying out of the professional bodies and membership arena.

The need to respect history 

In an organisation based on a committee structure (reporting to a council as well as potentially a board), it’s important to recognise that decisions will take longer to land.  What gets decided might also be tied to governance, and articles and byelaws enforced for decades, even centuries.

A corporate person who wants to simply wash away how things used to get done, needs to recognise how things are done, and must take this into consideration on any path of transformation.  Breaking traditions and customs may be required.  Slaughtering sacred cows could be necessary. Going about it in the right way is important.  If done with haste, or without paying due respect to what has gone before, chances are you will change nothing and simply bounce off the organisation.

Of course, to some degree the same could be said of corporates will long histories (although less of those seem to exist these days).  In professional bodies and membership organisations history, custom and practice are almost always defining features of what it means to be in the entity.

Expect more emotional outbursts 

People get emotional in all kinds of organisations, sectors and constructs. Its part human nature, part scenario driven and to be honest, is a healthy part of problem solving and creativity. In professional bodies and membership organisations that expression of strong emotion is often more distinct and frequent.  People feel as if they are paid to express themselves fervently.  Getting your opinions heard is a major part of your job.  Those opinions do not need to be fact based – in fact, making space for hearsay is often considered perfectly acceptable. These emotional outbursts are often also a form of negotiation currency.  People use emotional messaging as a demand to be heard. Some of this might even teeter on emotional blackmail, which there would be far less tolerance of in the corporate world.

If you’re going to work in a professional bodies or membership organisation you have to be able to decipher the emotional messages. You have to tolerate a bit of soap boxing and you have to read beneath the emotion to understand what might really be going on. Some will find the emotional outbreaks draining. Others will think them inappropriate and time wasteful.  Actually, the passionate expression of emotion, tells you that something important needs careful attention, and this means getting underneath the skin of the debate, into real detail.

Sometimes in corporate life a little bit more of that raw emotion might actually be quite helpful, especially where leaders are unwilling or unable to show any vulnerability.


I would certainly advocate experiencing these different types of organisations and constructs.  Every experience is a journey to learn something new, meet different people, respect different values and views on the world. We already know that diversity and inclusion make for better decision-making and better places to live and work.  With the right mindset, colliding these worlds together with care and attention offers nothing but enrichment.

Elisa Nardi is a partner at The LSL Group, and a non-executive director on the Board of the British Medical Association.