A Better Job Description for CEOs

It's a tough question: What's the job of the CEO? Here's a look at three parts of the answer.

What is the job of the CEO?” Jamie Notter asked last week, and I’ve been struggling to come up with a good answer since then.

(It’s always the simple questions that throw you. My three-year-old son lately is in the habit of asking, “Why does the sun go down?,” a question that’s revealed my poor grasp of astrophysics and theology alike.)

A CEO should know how the trains run—so she can know when to tweak the schedule.

In the year I’ve been blogging about leadership, I’ve tried to get at bits of Notter’s question from a number of angles. CEOs are stewards of people, of course—boards, staffs, members. But they’re also stewards of ideas: diversity, mentorship, advocacy, strategy, culture.

That, and more. So I don’t think it’s possible to adequately state the job of the CEO in one sentence. But I can distill what I’ve learned from talking to association CEOs into three general roles. The last one, I think, is the hardest and most essential one. But don’t skip ahead: The first two matter a lot as well.

1. It’s the job of the CEO to grasp and effectively manage the overall mechanics of the organization. A more elegant, and more common way of putting this is “keeping the trains running on time.” But I’m not a big fan of that phrase. I certainly appreciate an organization that gets things organized.  But a CEO’s job isn’t simply to keep things orderly, a point that I think Notter is getting at when he criticizes the concept of reducing a CEO’s role to mere “responsibility.” As he points out, a narrow focus on responsibility leads to control issues, and as Associations Now‘s Rob Stott pointed out last week, top-down, command-and-control-style leadership alienates staff.

So when I say “grasp and effectively manage the overall mechanics of the organization,” I mean a CEO should know how the trains run—how meetings relate to membership relate to marketing and communications, how this all relates to the strategic plan, and how to hire (or fire) the right people to make it all work. But a CEO should know these things so she can know when to tweak the schedule—that is, when to innovate.

2. It’s the job of the CEO to increase the value of the organization. In a thoughtful post earlier this month, association management expert Maria Huntley addressed the common question of whether an association CEO needs industry expertise as well as association-management expertise. Huntley feels the latter should take priority—as do I—but conversations with CEOs have persuaded me that the most successful ones make serious efforts to understand the dynamics of their association’s industry. How else are you going to identify the member needs that can lead to new products that will keep members with your organization, and bring in new ones?

3. It’s the job of the CEO to be the most emotionally intelligent person in the room. A year ago I might have found this point a little suspect; my past experience in corporate-business journalism inured me in the folklore about how the best leaders are the ice-in-the-veins, nuts-and-bolts types. (When the business press dubbed Jack Welch “Neutron Jack” for his penchant for eliminating staff and departments, it was typically meant as a compliment.) But the more time I look at how organizations fail to do right in terms of diversity, and how successful leaders can share authority, the more I think the so-called soft skills of empathy, trust, and respect are not just Nice Things to Have, but essential parts of effective leadership.

I suspect Notter won’t disagree with me on this, or at least won’t disagree on the general point that organizations ought to be more emotionally intelligent, and that leaders can help set that tone. As with the first two points, this role is effectively another pathway to innovation: By being sensitive to the temperature of the boardroom, to the criticism you’re hearing, to the voices that aren’t speaking up but ought to be heard, you open yourself to the ideas that can improve the organization and the people who work for it.

How would you answer Notter’s question? Speak up in the comments.


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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