The Perils of Blended Job Roles for Association Leaders

Combining executive responsibilities can give you a better sense of what your association does. But does it hamper your job as a strategic leader?

In the latest issue of Associations Now, I speak with Brenda Hargett, CAE, who is both the CFO and COO at the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery. My takeaway is that Hargett represents, if not a trend, at least a new sensibility about how closely association leadership roles interlock. Such blended job roles have happened more by circumstance than by choice: The recession forced many organizations to combine positions when they might have otherwise avoided such belt-tightening.

If you try to wait to make a change until you can make every single change whole in an area, you will probably never get to that point.

The potential upside is that an association’s C-suite occupants are in a better position to understand the big picture. Still, reporting and writing the story raised a question for me that the article didn’t have the scope to address: How flexible is this kind of dual-role arrangement, and what challenges does it create for leadership? In Hargett’s case and in many others’, having a handle on the finances and operations makes perfect sense. But finance chiefs I spoke with for the story also told me that the arrangement is only as good as the people you have working under you. Some sloppy accounting among staff can lead to poor decision-making down the line.

And that’s the tricky thing about leadership: You’re doing your job best when you understand multiple aspects of the organization, but it comes undone when you end up spending too much time deep in the weeds of any one part of your operations. I think a combined CEO-CTO role, for instance, would be a poor idea; you don’t want the person setting strategy spending a lot of time taking demo meetings with vendors. A CFO-CTO role has its own issues too; cost is one consideration when you’re making technology purchases, and it’s one a CFO is likely trained to privilege, but it’s not the only point to consider.

I know that for a lot of Associations Now readers, this kind of discussion about combining job roles is a moot point. Often, the roles are already combined. Many small-staff organizations consider themselves lucky to have full-time tech and/or finance staffers, and in many cases the strategic and operational decisions do indeed fall to the CEO. A little more than half of all associations (53 percent) have a staff member dedicated to financial operations, according to ASAE benchmarking research.

So the more time I spent on the story, the more I came to admire Hargett’s particular skill at not just balancing two complicated job roles, but at blending nerve and strategic thinking. During one part of our interview that didn’t make it into the final article, she discussed how to make bold moves without making the kind of rash decisions that rankle boards and rank-and-file members.

“You’ve probably heard the saying that if you wait until you can afford to have kids you’ll never have kids,” she told me. “If you try to wait to make a change until you can make every single change whole in an area, you will probably never get to that point. So what I try to do  is make changes that are going to be step-oriented while looking at it in a strategic way…. Instead of looking at the big problem, compartmentalize it, and see if you can find a success to start with to get people believing in the approach you’re going to take.”

Have you had to do this kind of role-recombination at your organization? As a leader, how has it prompted you to think about your role as a strategist, and about the operations that you now spend more time supervising?


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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