Does Membership Experience Matter in the CEO Role?

Membership is the foundational business model for most associations, but working in a membership department doesn't appear to be an important step toward the CEO job.

Having spent five days a week for more than six years now reading, writing, and thinking about associations, there isn’t a lot that surprises me about the profession anymore. I certainly don’t pretend to know all there is to know, of course. That would take a lifetime. But not a lot makes me scratch my head and suddenly change my thinking.

Something I heard back in June, though, did (and I’ve been wondering about it ever since). At ASAE’s 2013 Marketing, Membership & Communications Conference, I sat in on a Learning Lab about the core competencies [PDF] of an association membership professional. It was well attended, with about 75 people in the room, I’d estimate. At one point, in discussion about the importance of instilling a member-centric focus across an association’s staff, one of the presenters polled the members of the audience to ask if their association’s CEO came from a background in membership.

No one in the room raised their hand. None.

I don’t really remember the next few minutes of that Learning Lab, because I was just reeling from that show of hands. Really? No CEOs from membership departments at the organizations represented in the room? None? Is membership that unimportant?

One of the presenters polled the members of the audience to ask if their association’s CEO came from a background in membership. No one in the room raised their hand.

Last I checked, membership is a defining characteristic of most associations. Associations don’t just have members; in a sense, associations are members. So why wouldn’t the membership department of an association staff be a likely stepping stone to an association executive position?

I considered that perhaps the group of attendees in that MMC Learning Lab was just a fluke. Maybe it was very nonrepresentative of the larger association population. Maybe those inclined to come to a session about membership core competencies are exactly the people who are most concerned about a lack of such competencies in their associations. But these were also people whose bosses valued marketing, membership, and communications disciplines enough to send them to a conference about them.

I asked a couple association consultants for off-the-top-of-their-head recollections about the backgrounds of association CEOs they’ve worked with, and they weren’t surprised when I told them about the show of hands at the MMC session. Coincidentally, a couple years ago on the Acronym blog, I posted the question “Which ‘hat’ makes the best association CEO?” No one responded to speak up for membership (though, it should be noted, there was a grand total of five comments).

ASAE doesn’t have data specifically addressing the question of what association disciplines CEOs come from, but consider a couple points of data it does have:

  • By compensation, membership-department heads are low on the food chain. Of the 24 chief-level positions included in the latest edition of ASAE’s Association Compensation & Benefits Study, “Membership Chief” ranks 21st in median salary—ahead of only chiefs of administration, certification, and component relations and well behind chiefs of finance, public relations, government relations, human resources, and several others.
  • Association-management experience (in general) isn’t as necessary for association CEO employment as you might think. In a survey of 1,585 CEOs and executive directors of member-serving organizations for ASAE’s forthcoming book What Makes High-Performing Boards: Effective Governance Practices in Member-Serving Organizations, 52 percent said they were trained or educated in the field their organization serves, while 37 percent said they were trained or educated as an association professional. And, even if you limit the responses to ASAE members, still 43 percent are from their association’s industry, while 54 percent are trained in association management.

None of this is proof that membership experience is wholly devalued in the association executive role, but neither is any of it supportive. Again, knowing that membership as a business model is the bread and butter of associations, I am surprised that membership experience does not appear to be more highly valued than it is.

Another comment made in the Learning Lab on membership core competencies pointed out that most membership professionals come from other disciplines and professions. In other words, no one majors in membership models in college. This makes it the quintessential association discipline (because virtually no one majors in association management in college, either), but it also means on-the-job experience is the primary way anyone can learn about the dynamics of membership models. To me, that would make experience in the membership department more essential to a would-be executive’s résumé, but it appears I might be wrong about that.

I am very curious for your opinion, though. How does this match up (or not) with what you see in your association or the association community at large? Was the crowd in that MMC Learning Lab a fluke? Does your association’s executive have professional experience in association membership development? Where do you see membership fitting in to an association executive’s repertoire? Please share in the comments.

Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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