So, is there any discernible advantage to hiring an executive with association management experience or one with industry experience? Yes.
In What Makes High Performing Boards (ASAE Association Management Press, 2013), researchers Beth Gazley, Ph.D., and Ashley Bowers found that association experience and industry experience in the chief staff executive each correlated with increased performance in association boards, in different aspects. For instance, hiring an executive with association experience was linked with increased board effectiveness at aligning resources with strategy, while an executive’s industry experience correlated with increased board understanding of the external environment and trends.
“We found both CEO skill sets are linked to higher board performance— with a slight advantage to training in association management,” Gazley and Bowers wrote.
Carol Barber, principal of CB & Associates and the Executive Recruitment Concierge for Association CareerHQ, says she advises association boards to seek candidates with association experience who are willing to learn. “I’ve known [executives] who have had completely unrelated association leadership experience,” she says. “One industry is different from another and another, but they learn it, and they learn it fast. They’re not going to learn it like members know it, but they know that the members are the ones they can go to for the kind of guidance that they would need to be able to run the business.”
Associations considering executive candidates from their industry should look for nonprofit volunteer experience, says David Martin, managing partner at executive-search firm Sterling Martin Associates. “Have they been involved as a volunteer in their association? Have they been involved as a board member of a nonprofit or of an association? Because that gives them more of a sense of the inner workings of an association and the challenges that an association executive goes through on a daily basis,” he says.—J.R.