Survey: Big Decisions Challenge Association Executives

A new study from Heidrick & Struggles and George Mason University has found that many association executives lean on senior staffers or board members when presented with tough personnel and financial decisions.

Association leaders may put on a strong face, but a new report states that behind that veneer, many execs are riddled with doubt about the decisions they’re making.

Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search and leadership consulting firm, worked with researchers at George Mason University on Association CEOs: Leading through Change, a survey of more than 500 association executives in the trade and professional sectors. The survey found that nearly three-quarters of respondents (74 percent) doubted themselves when faced with a major decision.

The biggest challenge on this front often involved decisions about senior personnel, which troubled 41 percent of respondents. Other matters that raised concerns included financial issues (20 percent) and “big bets” on major initiatives for the orgnization(12 percent).

The decisions were often so complicated that respondents said they struggled to sleep, and personnel issues were a key stress factor due to the personal relationships of the people involved in such matters.

When leaders struggled with decisions, they said their closest confidant was usually a senior staff member (35 percent) or a current board chair (34 percent). But that wasn’t the only person that CEOs talked to. Beyond top leadership, sources of secondary support included board members (81 percent), spouses (60 percent), and peers (58 percent).

George Mason’s David Rehr, a senior associate dean and a professor for the university’s law school, says this network is a key sounding board to help make these decisions easier to manage.

“Association CEOs who are well-positioned to manage through change are engaging with their boards early to establish a well-rounded vision, and relying on senior teams to make tough decisions,” Rehr said in a news release.

A few other key points from the survey:

Where female CEOs take the helm: The survey found that nearly three-quarters of female chief executives (73 percent) led at associations with revenues of less than $10 million in 2015, while nearly 40 percent of male CEOs (39 percent) led at organizations with revenues above $10 million. “This survey result demonstrates that the gender gap in top jobs at the largest associations remains an issue,” the report states.

How tenure affects approach: CEOs generally reached out to senior staff when considering important issues but were less likely to do so when they had been at the job less than 18 months (71 percent) or when they’d been at the job longer than 15 years (69 percent). If an executive had been in the role between seven and nine years, however, the figure rose to 84 percent—creating a bell-curve effect, according to the survey. Who did long-term CEOs talk to instead? According to the survey, “those who have been in the job 15 years or longer are the most likely group to seek out counsel from a former board chair, likely reflecting the lasting relationships that are so key to association leadership.”

Boards generally engaged: The survey also found that most respondents felt that their boards seemed engaged in the association’s mission and vision (84 percent) and tended to raise concerns or discuss ongoing projects (79 percent). But one thing boards typically didn’t stick with was the status quo (38 percent). The report suggests that the unpaid nature of a board position tends to appeal to people who were generally driven by growth and a willingness to give back to their industry. “These dynamics may be the driving force behind why association CEOs overwhelmingly say their board is knowledgeable, engaged, and an active partner in problem solving,” the report states. “Approximately three-quarters of survey respondents had positive things to say about their board in almost every realm.”

The full survey is available at the Heidrick & Struggles website.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!