How To Recruit Your New Association CEO: Industry Experience Versus Association Experience

One of the services that AES has offered to associations for a number of years is the provision of an interim CEO. Often, this service is utilised by association boards that are in a transition phase, defined by the recruitment of a new CEO.

When acting as an interim CEO, AES has had the opportunity to experience first-hand a range of different leadership styles and management cultures within many associations. Along the way, we have identified areas of leadership excellence, as well as areas that have required more work to ensure that the association in question is managed in line with industry best practice.

Here are some of the observations we’ve made over the years.

A Problematic CEO Recruiting Process

The responsibility for the appointment of a new CEO sits with the Board of Directors. Unfortunately, this is often where problems arise. Remember: association boards usually consist of volunteers who are also members of the association. Board members may have a solid understanding of governance, and in-depth skills and experience within the profession or industry they represent. However, in our experience, more often than not, it is rare that the board really understands the competencies, skills and responsibilities required to lead an association.  

The operational management of an association requires a unique skill set, which comprises some—or all—of the following:

  • An understanding of board governance and risk management, particularly compliance with the association’s constitution
  • The ability to support and develop the Board, particularly as board members may not have any prior board experience
  • An understanding of the strategic planning process and how to implement a Strategic Plan
  • The ability to identify key issues that are impacting on the membership  
  • The ability to build relationships with external and internal stakeholders, including key members, sponsors and government entities
  • The capability to build a strong team of paid staff and volunteers to ensure the goals and objectives of the association are met
  • The ability to influence government policy and policy makers
  • An understanding of the financial performance of the association and the ability to provide support to the treasurer
  • An understanding of the needs of the members and the ability to implement strategies that can grow and retain membership, including the provision of products and services for purchase by members
  • An understanding of the importance of a website, CRM or database and all other association management systems. The CEO should be conversant with all association platforms available in the market place and be able to determine what is the best fit within budget restraints
  • In many cases, associations rely on income from events. As such, a CEO must fully understand the event industry, particularly working with suppliers, sponsors and stakeholders.

In addition to the above, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world of events and association management has changed. Each day we see new technology being introduced which is changing the face of how we manage our associations. Not only are there now hybrid events and a greater use of virtual and digital technologies, but there have also been changes in social media and software platforms that can contribute to the productivity of staff. The CEO must be able to quickly assess all the new technology.

Challenges for the Recruitment Company

The skills and attributes listed above are only a few of the qualities an association CEO must possess. This makes recruiting the right person for the job a tough process, which is why association boards may decide to approach a recruitment company. However, the enlistment of a recruitment company can also cause problems: unless the board really understands the role of the association CEO, they cannot properly brief the recruitment company. This results in the employment of a CEO based on the perceptions of who the board think should be running the association.

Association Experience Versus Industry Experience

For instance, a professional ‘Science Association’ needs to recruit a new CEO. The advert states that the candidate must have a degree or PhD in Science, with extensive experience working in a science environment. Although the Science Association’s board might think it is important that the CEO possess science-related qualifications and experience, association leadership skills and experience are more essential.

Unless the board fully understands the diversity of skills required to be an association CEO, they will opt to recruit someone from their professional background or industry. The recruitment company will follow the directions of their client—the board.

Although a CEO may have significant experience managing for-profit organisations and knowledge of the industry, many who do not have association experience often remark on how steep their learning curve is when they start in their new role. They quickly realise there are challenges to face that they’ve never encountered before.

In many cases, CEOs without association experience are able to adapt and come up to speed with the latest trends in association management, particularly if they have help from organisations like AES.

Although they might have in-depth industry knowledge, other new CEOs struggle to deliver on the skills required to manage an association effectively.

 Appointing Your  Professional Association CEO  

If you sit on an association board and are in the process of recruiting a new CEO, here is our number one piece of advice: Look for a professional CEO who has solid experience as an leader in a range of associations.

For various reasons, CEOs come and go, and associations can be left rudderless while they wait to appoint a new executive officer. This time can be tricky, as the focus is switched to survival rather than implementing growth strategies and completing projects. 

AES can supply you with an interim CEO, so your association doesn't have to take a step backwards during the hiring process. We have a large team of advisers that have filled executive roles in a variety of NFPs, so you can be assured of a quality executive that will not only fill the position but help you to succeed. Contact us on 03 8393 9382 for further details.