Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Should the CEO be an Industry Insider or Association Professional?

The other day I had a networking call from an experienced association professional. She had just left a senior position with a large national organization who had hired “one of their own” to serve as its CEO. My friend said “he tried to run the association like his private practice. It was a disaster. It is the first time in my career that I’ve resigned without another job in hand.”

I thought it a bit ironic that she called shortly after a fairly intense dialog on ASAE’s Executive Management egroup regarding whether associations should hire someone from the industry or someone who is an association professional.

When I owned my Association Management Company, I pledged to new clients that my staff and I would get to know their industry/profession so well that their members would come to think of us as someone from that industry/profession.

Here are some highlights from that online discussion:
(Note: since I did not get their permission to use their comments, I am only including first names.)

Easier to Learn Industry than to learn Association Management (From David)

You can learn the issues in any industry or profession a lot more easily than you can learn how to become a successful association CEO.

Association professionals do not carry industry biases, are not trying to outdo industry competitors, and are not beholden to particular people in that industry.

Industry leaders, on the other hand, not only have conflicts of interest, they may think of themselves as more knowledgeable than their Boards. So, they may seek ways to dominate, outflank, or ignore the Board when they disagree with directives.

Also, industry people often have never managed anything. Even those that led staffs or managed facilities, have not managed not-for-profit associations and often lack the skills to do so successfully.

Following an Industry Insider (From Donna)

I've been reading this thread with interest. I agree with Chip -- we all rely on our personal experience to inform our opinion.

Three times I've come in as CEO behind an industry/profession person. Three times (and this may be a selection error on my part) I've found that the person was well respected and liked, but the underlying foundation of the organization was in need of repair, or should have been condemned. Stuff that association professionals do almost without thinking because of the specialized knowledge we have.

In one case an association professional followed me when I left and did not find success. In another case an industry professional followed me and did not find success. In both cases I would say that at least part of the challenges presented result from a board unwilling to learn their roles and responsibilities. Being an association exec or industry professional is not a determinant of long-term success.

In my current position I'm the first non-industry person in the role. I was asked the "why should we hire an association professional" in every interview I had -- and actually wrote a brief article as part of the interview process to help the search committee understand my skills. Even now I occasionally get the "you're not one of us" comments. That's fine with me. I don't need to be one of "them" to do my job. But I do need to understand and engage with them and assimilate to the culture.

I'm biased to having an association professional in a top role at the organization. In a large organization there might be COO/EVP/#2 role, but the CEO sets the tone, the expectations and culture that brings about the ability for the staff to perform.

The board is responsible for the organization and their comfort level may be within the industry. It takes a tremendous amount of courage for a board to say they are hiring "outside," especially for the first time.

While I think we have the right stuff, it is always subject to culture and board ability to accept and manage risk. For an organization that has never had an association professional at the top, we are seen as a risk. 

Competition in CEO Job Search (From Charles)

This, indeed, has been/is an interesting discussion. I think all of our comments will be anecdotal in nature. And, not surprisingly, all of us (who are responding) being association execs, we certainly are coming down on the side of favoring "one of our own" in the CEO's seat.

In my 36+ year association career, I've seen it both ways.

Based on the job search I have been conducting the past 7+ months (& which, hopefully, soon will conclude!): I have been/am seeing it both ways as I have pursued a myriad of CEO and senior-executive positions. Some flat out state a requirement or "strong preference" for an industry representative (if they also happen to have association experience, that's beneficial - but a secondary consideration). Others, blessedly, focus on association experience. And still others are not explicit -- but I find, as I go thru the process, that all things being equal, the association(s) would rather opt for one of their own over a candidate like me who is strictly an association exec. (There are at least 2 positions where I was a finalist & the last minute decision was to veer in favor of an industry person, even tho that wasn't a requirement of the position.)

So, while my obvious bias favors the need for organizations to hire executives with strong association management skills and experience, I think we all need to be honest with ourselves and face/accept the reality that we often/frequently are up against industry insiders. Perhaps this speaks to the on-going need for ASAE to aggressively promote & educate not-for-profit organizations re the value of hiring association execs.

No Guarantee of Success for Either Option (From Terrance)

This is one of those topics that has been debated for many, many years and has supporters on both sides of the coin.
  1. Being from the industry or not being from the industry is not a guarantee of success nor a guarantee of failure, both can work. 
  2. If you come from the industry, you need to learn what is unique and necessary to be a successful manager of an association. 
  3. If you do not come from the industry, you need to learn about your association's professional or business sector at least to the degree that you have credibility. 
  4. The more that the CEO is expected to be the public face of the association and to speak on behalf of the organization, the more that individual needs to be able to speak with indepth knowledge and authority. This might tip the scale in favor of a person that is from the industry or profession but not necessarily. 
As always, I think the best way to approach this topic for an organization is to define what you expect first; what are the "must have" attributes for a potential candidate and the "nice to have" credentials. Then, to select the person best suited to fit the criteria and achieve results.

If you do a deep analysis of what attributes an association CEO needs, I think you will find that having come from the profession is not as high on the list as other, general management qualities.

I think points 1, 2 and 3 really sum it up from what I have observed over the years. 

Association Management is a Profession (From John)

Association management is a profession. It looks easier from the outside looking in. It ain't so easy.

I had 18 years of telecommunications experience when I left the straight world to become President/CEO of a telecommunications professional association. I spent 2 years applying the Keith Jackson of ABC Sports approach- stumblin', fumblin', bumblin'. It was not until I went to an ASAE CEO bootcamp that I realized that just applying for-profit management principles w/o factoring in the unique aspects of association management would not work.

If an industry person steps into the association CEO spot I would strongly encourage them to gather an association management education to supplement their industry skills.

Be in constant learning (from Susan)

Very interesting discussion and like many, I can see the merit of both arguments. Again, I have met many CEOs who come from the industry/profession and those who come from the association management ranks. I have seen both succeed and fail. To generalize why, would be a pointless endeavor.

My personal opinion is that all association CEOs must be in the constant learning curve and earn our jobs every day. If we really are good at leading and managing the business and Board, using our members for their expertise in the field or industry and bring to the table new, which keep our association growing and stretching, then we are doing our jobs.

I think the bigger issue are CEOs who are in the business of working to or playing it safe, just to keep their jobs. Our job is to lead and that requires risk, innovation, leadership, operational excellence, emotional intelligence and all of the other common skills of any CEO position.

I would love to see data on how many associations are run by association management executives or those from the industry/field and their average tenure. It would be enlightening data. Regardless of your roots, there is a learning curve for each new job. Either you have to really learn the profession or industry or learn principles of effectively managing an association.

So, what do you think?

FOOTNOTE (added 7/11/13):

Hi all-

Given the level of interest and discussion on this topic, I asked ASAE's research department if we had any relevant data, and we're in luck. As it happens, in the research for the forthcoming book What Do High-Performing Boards Look Like? CEO respondents were asked whether they were trained as an association professional or in the field their association serves. Here's a look at how they responded:

Respondents were asked to check off any that applied:
  • I am trained/educated in the field that my organization serves: 52.3% 
  • I am trained/educated as an association professional: 36.5%
There are some interesting differences.

Hope this is helpful.


Joe Rominiecki
Senior Editor
ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership
Washington DC
(202) 626-2734

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