Recruiting for membership bodies: (1) the case of professional standards

Susie Schofield writes: At FJ Wilson Talent Services (FJWTS) we work closely with professional membership organisations, awarding bodies, and learning providers. In the process, we have been fortunate to gain a number of insights into talent acquisition and management in these sectors.

Adam Harper (AAT)

Here we begin a five-part series with Adam Harper, Director of Strategy and Professional Standards at the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), and Lucy Carmichael, Director of Practice at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in which they kindly share their thoughts on recruiting candidates for member organisations’ professional standards departments.

In this first part, we find out what Adam and Lucy identify as the challenges for recruiting professional standards staff for member organisations and why the Head of Professional Standards role is so critical to their organisations’ business.

Working as a professional standards employee isn’t a profession (like an accountant, lawyer, doctor). Nor is it an obvious career route, so this can present challenges in finding high quality candidates.


Lucy Carmichael (RIBA)

Lucy explains: ‘It’s not a career. Individuals generally come from a legal background and tend to be interested in broader ethical issues. You’re fishing in a very small pond. It’s quite challenging finding the right person with the right skills and who is the right fit for your organisation’.

Adam’s experience of recruiting senior managerial positions within the professional standards team at AAT points to a combination of factors that make it difficult: ‘These include the fact that it is a specialist area and therefore the roles you are recruiting for could be quite specific, or, if you are looking from someone with a membership organisation background, that can limit your pool’.

Lucy adds ‘It’s quite a challenge to find candidates. They have to have the ability to apply different skills in different settings’. You need ‘someone who can quickly pick up the nuances of the sector, such as medical, architectural, legal. Regulation is a very broad spectrum’.

Lucy warns against those candidates who, at interview, state ‘this is how we do things’. Such a rigid approach, or lack of adaptability to an organisation’s culture, won’t work.  ‘You need someone to adapt to new culture,’ says Lucy. This includes ‘the organisation’s and profession’s values – which won’t necessarily be applied in the same way’. There is no one set approach to professional standards, some adopt an inquisitorial approach, others an adversarial one.

Adam adds ‘The fact that standards and related legislative issues tend to be profession- specific (so whilst you may find someone with relevant experience with another professional body, it may be from a very different industry),’ this presents ‘another related challenge’.

Lucy elaborates: ‘RIBA has peculiarities. You need to have regulatory knowledge, probably a legal background. But equally having a knowledge of the sector’ may qualify you to work in this area. ‘It’s not necessarily true that you’ll find those skills in the same person. It almost becomes harder if you are a long-time employee in the same organisation in professional standards.’

The Head of Professional Standards at RIBA has a ‘much broader remit than for other organisations’: duties include ‘managing the programmes for equality, diversity and inclusion, the specialist registers, and professional ethics. The person needs to have experience of managing projects and programmes. They don’t necessarily have to be a case officer who has come up through the ranks’.

Adam and Lucy agree that the Head of Professional Standards role at their organisations is critical to their business. ‘Given the risk to AAT’s reputation should the standards of professionalism amongst our members fall below the levels expected,’ explains Adam,

‘Having someone head up our professional standards team is essential. In addition, given the rate of change across the profession, having someone who is able to scan the horizon and plan for the impact of future changes is critical. Maintaining the level of confidence that third parties and the wider public has in AAT’s members is integral to ensuring the future prospects for AAT as a whole.’

At RIBA the role of the Head of Professional Standards is central to the organisation’s success. Lucy elaborates: ‘Unlike many professional member organisations, you don’t have to be a member of RIBA to be an architect.[1] In essence, RIBA’s members – both individual and corporate – buy-into the higher standards set by RIBA. This – committing to our higher professional standards – is what it means to be a RIBA member.’


[1] Architects need to be a member of the Architectural Registration Board to practise

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