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The Association CEO: A Question of Leadership

A world of change, that’s where we live.

Change is what keeps the association CEO challenged and professionally vibrant, alive. It is why the CEO must continually learn. Change affects the organizations in which the association CEO serves. And it drives the association CEO’s development – his/her success with one association and how long they will stay with it before moving onto another … or not.

In what follows, we have two goals. First, to help you improve your performance in your current position, i.e., better align your skills, qualities and professional characteristics with the needs of your current association. Our second goal is to help you focus on how your current position will affect what you will be able to do in the future, i.e., to better understand how your current position aligns with where you want to be.

We will start with What’s Changed in what it means to be a successful association CEO. Next is What’s Not Changed – the core relationship between the association CEO and his/her Board. We will then explore the forces and dynamics that affect a CEO’s professional growth and career tracking across time. In particular, we will focus on the CEO’s tenure in one position and what may lead to a move to another association – i. e., the Association CEO Life Cycle.

What’s Changed

The clichés abound: We’ve flattened the pyramid, discovered our core competencies, embraced the net, re-engineered our operations, gone global, realized fundamental enhancements in productivity, seen a quantum leap in competition from the for-profit sector and been to the brink literally – of world economic collapse.
Throughout this maelstrom of change, we’ve been guided and coached by a troop of management mavens who created and shared their research, ideas, discoveries and analysis on what makes successful organizations truly successful. Among their works we include:

  • TQM/Continuous Improvement – Deming
  • In Search of Excellence – Peters
  • Built to Last – Collins and Porras
  • The Seven Habits of Successful People – Covey
  • Reengineering – Hammer and Champy
  • Beyond Strategy to Purpose – Bartlett and Ghoshal
  • The Oz Principal – Comors, Smith and Hickman
  • Good to Great – Collins

The common themes in all this were value and quality as goals and empowerment and accountability as venues. Of these, empowerment and accountability were huge in their effect on how organizations came to be managed.

Empowerment meant the sharing of power, pushing it down into the organization. It required leadership instincts, insight and action on the part of the executive doing the empowering as well as leadership on the part of the person being empowered, i.e., his/her acceptance and use of it.

Accountability meant not only having the discipline to achieve one’s own goals, but also having the management training, discipline and leadership necessary to instill accountability in others for their goal achievement on their own. The effect, certainly the goal, was that each person in the organization holds himself/herself accountable for their portion of the organization’s success.

The core effect of this in our time frame has been a nationwide fractionation of decision making, i.e., driving decision-making down deeper into ever lower levels of the national economy. This has enabled and empowered, and now requires, those deeper in the organization to take increased responsibility for what they are doing, to own it.

And how has all this affected the association community and the role of the association CEO in particular? Well, if you take decision-making to require leadership, if you believe that empowering others is the epitome of leadership, then the answer can only be fundamentally.

As an association’s members/representatives are thrust into an enhanced leadership role in their day jobs, their time becomes more valuable and the association must compete more vigorously and wisely for it. In this, the association CEO has become increasingly responsible for ensuring a clearly perceived and positive value proposition to the volunteers he/she wishes to attract and to serve on the Board of their association.

Even more clearly, the association CEO has had to be an executive of a caliber and personality that the volunteer leaders wanted to spend time with, a person with strong leadership qualities as well as management abilities.

Additionally, the increasing focus on value has directly impacted association funding models. Relying largely on annual dues was no longer going to work. Members needed to see value for specific services and activities. As ASAE data show, dues income as a percent of total income declined from 56 percent in 1976 (it was over 90 percent in the early 1950s) to 40 percent in 2006, a trend many see as continuing and perhaps accelerating.

In effect, the focus has shifted from making certain everyone was ‘feeling good’ to everyone ‘feeling the goods’, squeezing them, in fact, to make certain there was value for the time and money spent with an association that might be applied elsewhere.

Accordingly, success in association management now must reflect the expectation and need for stronger leadership qualities and instincts in the association CEO position. The particulars would include the CEO as more responsible for:

  • Financial performance both operationally and entrepreneurially, something beyond the prudent management of dues to the finding and building of new revenue sources to develop and deliver greater value.
  • Ensuring organizational relevance, in particular, harnessing the leadership and harvesting the resources and vision of the Board in mission determination and mission achievement.
  • Promoting membership engagement in the work of the association, i.e., seeing and using members as assets as well as customers.
  • Testing and exploring the staff leadership needs of the organization, i.e., understanding how much leadership the Board wants from the CEO and – separate question – how much leadership the Board and the association need from the CEO. It’s not a one-size-fits-all type of thing.
  • Encouraging – even ensuring – a Board culture and mindset that is both intentional and directional.

What’s Not Changed

While the leadership requirements of the association CEO have risen, the core elements of what constitutes the association have not changed: not-for-profit, mission-driven, begun and directed by persons with common interests and goals and, finally, providing services, products and representation by and for those who initiate and sustain it. And as the core elements of what constitutes an association have not changed, neither has the core relationship between the association CEO and the Board of Directors.

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