How Does a CEO’s Background Influence Membership?

To hire an executive with experience in association management or in your members' field is an important choice every association must make from time to time. But how does that choice affect your association's membership performance and your members themselves—if at all?

In politics, insider versus outsider is one of the oldest and most fundamental contexts in which to frame a contest. The insiders call themselves experienced, while the outsiders say they’re just like you. They both argue their respective backgrounds are better for effective governing. As to who is right, well, that’s why we all get to vote.

Associations have their own kind of insider/outsider debate about leadership, though thankfully it doesn’t come paired with nasty rhetoric and attack ads. The question associations must face on occasion—specifically, when it’s time to hire a new CEO—is whether experience in association management or experience as a member (i.e., as a practitioner in whatever field the association serves) is preferable for the top executive’s role.

Less than half of associations have staff solely dedicated to membership, and such positions are an uncommon route to the CEO suite.

Associations Now explored this question with a pair of profiles of new-ish association CEOs in the March/April 2016 issue, online last week. In writing the profiles, I made no grand conclusions; rather, I’ve come to the view that the answer is likely unique to each association’s circumstances. But the stories shared by Wendy-Jo Toyama, MBA, CAE, executive director at the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association, and Thomas Connelly Jr., Ph.D., executive director and CEO at the American Chemical Society (ACS), show that, in either case, a good leader steps into the role eager to learn.

A related but more specific question came to mind as I wrote the profiles, though I didn’t address it directly: How does the background of an association CEO affect membership operations, if at all? It seems at once a question both too narrow to be fair—because an executive’s leadership influences meetings, advocacy, education, finance, and every other facet of an association in addition to membership—and yet central to the decision of whom to hire—someone who knows membership or someone who knows your members.

Whatever kind of question it is, I don’t have much of an answer to it. But that’s why we have blogs like this, to pose open-ended questions and seek the perspectives of readers like you. I can, however, think of at least a few angles that are worth considering:

Does it make any difference to members if their association’s CEO is a fellow member? In the long run, members feel the effects of a CEO’s leadership through the quality of benefits and service the association delivers across the board, but they may not link that to the CEO’s background as a fellow practitioner or lack thereof. If the association is particularly focused on advocacy, members may want to see a familiar face to serve as their voice to lawmakers. But, either way, members don’t elect their association CEOs the way voters elect presidents, so members’ opinions on this question are only indirectly represented through their board members. (And even that structure is only a loose facsimile of what we call democracy.)

Many association CEOs, even association-management veterans, do not have experience directly overseeing membership. It turns out that less than half of associations even have staff solely dedicated to membership, and such positions are apparently an uncommon route to the CEO suite. In that case, it’s again unclear whether lengthy association management experience in a CEO translates to any significant influence on the membership operation of the organization.

Research suggests CEO background may be a nonfactor. The only research I’m aware of that comes close to addressing the question of a CEO’s association background is What Makes High-Performing Boards, by Beth Gazley, Ph.D., and Ashley Bowers, published by ASAE Management Press in 2013. They examined an array of factors that influence an association board’s effectiveness, among them various CEO characteristics including whether the CEO comes from associations or the field. While the researchers found a “slight advantage” overall to CEOs with training in association management, on specific membership-related board-performance measures, the CEO’s background had no significant influence.

Savvy association CEOs spend time with members anyway. Both CEOs I profiled in Associations Now said they spent significant time in their first year on the job meeting with members both in person and over the phone. Connelly, who holds degrees in chemical engineering and economics and had spent 36 years at DuPont before taking the helm at ACS, said, “Culture is critical. So, make the effort to really learn the culture. And the best way to do that is spend time with the members. Spend time with the volunteers. Spend time with the board. Because they will be your teachers. They will be your source of knowledge.” And a chorus of other associations say the same about the value of regular member visits.

Perhaps the question of what kind of CEO to hire is mostly a matter of opinion or, again, the particular circumstances of any given association. But, as it relates to membership, let’s pose the question to membership professionals (or those who have titles other than “membership” but who carry out membership duties): Does it matter to you if your association’s CEO comes from association management or the profession your association serves? How might either background influence the CEO’s role in your work, in either your current role or past associations you’ve worked for? Or is this question so narrow that it’s just not worth worrying about? Please share your thoughts 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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