Leadership Training With a Personal Touch

Why one association is setting up shop to handle individualized board consulting and CEO searches.

If you’re the head of an association, how responsible are you for improving the quality of leadership within its industry? Beth Brooks, CAE, has been thinking a lot about that lately.

Brooks is president and CEO of the Texas Society of Association Executives, and in recent years she’s witnessed a troubling amount of churn among top staff executives among her membership. Now that more CEOs are retiring, she says, boards are under more pressure to make good hires but aren’t always sure how to respond. “I’ve seen situations where a board has had a longtime executive retire, [and] the board did not always take that opportunity to really figure out where they are, where they’re going, or what skills they need in their new executive director,” she says.

We want the boards that are going to hire CEOs who are going to stay, says Beth Brooks

In the name of changing things up, especially when the departing CEO was been around for a while, Brooks says, many organizations choose an executive who lacks experience or is a bad fit, and departs after less than a year on the job. (I discussed this issue in a blog post last month about CEO transitions.)

Brooks recognizes that there are abundant consulting firms and educational programs available to train leaders how to lead and train executive committees how to conduct executive searches. But a little over a year ago she figured that helping Texas associations with those efforts is one that TSAE itself could take on with its own expertise.

After a pilot version last year, TSAE is preparing to launch its own consulting arm, covering board facilitation and organizational assessments; interim executive placement; and executive director searches. It’s partly a nondues revenue stream for the association, but Brooks argues that it’s also an effort that serves the best interests of TSAE in the long run. “We want the boards that are going to hire CEOs who are going to stay,” she says.

Part of what Brooks plans to train on—and she intends to do much of that training herself, with the help of other CEOs in TSAE’s membership—are the nuts-and-bolts elements of understanding finances, board structures, marketing, and so on. But the more critical concern she’s seen are the behavior-oriented leadership skills such as relationship management, consensus-building, culture, strategic thinking. Brooks sees a lot of new executives trip up on the relationship aspect of the job, particularly when it comes to relating to the board; leaders who are used to measuring success in terms of staff productivity may stumble when it comes to getting volunteers behind your vision.

“The ability to motivate others is one of those nebulous skills where a lot of people move into the role and they don’t realize how important that is,” she says. “We have the tangibles of association management, financials, budgeting, but a lot of the soft skills are really what we’re starting to identify.”

TSAE’s program doesn’t immediately appear transferable outside of the association space, and may not be in a lot of cases—not every association is positioned to be an expert in leadership training, of course, or draws its membership among leaders in an industry. But associations typically have long expertise in the best practices in their industries, and there may be opportunities for them to provide one-on-one training on them beyond the usual meetings and educational events.

So while the training is more tailored, TSAE’s effort serves the larger goal of supporting the entire industry. “It really sets us on the path as the place to be for growth if you’re going to stay in this profession,” Brooks says.

What does your association do to provide more individualized support for your members? Share your experiences 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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