The Skills an Association CEO Needs

Association leaders from various backgrounds can succeed, but a new survey shows that there are some common experiences that can help.

Team Jacob vs. Team Edward. Less filling vs. tastes great. Industry experience vs. association experience.

Some debates have a way of enduring, and we’ll likely never settle the question of whether an association CEO is better off coming from a background in association management or hails from the industry the association represents. Plainly, both have their virtues. But a new study sheds a little more light on leaders from those differing backgrounds—and perhaps more importantly, explores the common experiences that benefit CEOs of all backgrounds.

Indeed, one takeaway from “Pathways to CEO Success,” [PDF] a new research paper from the ASAE Foundation in collaboration with Naylor Association Solutions, is that CEOs’  backgrounds are more complicated than that binary split. For instance, 30 percent of the execs surveyed say they “fell into association work” and eventually rose to CEO, and 29 percent say they worked in their association’ industry. But 20 percent came to the association world after leading in another sector.

These circuitous routes to the C-suite aren’t a bad thing—one common thread among all the CEOs surveyed is their breadth of experience and level of education. Nearly half of the respondents (49 percent) say they had attained a graduate degree before they became CEO, with a plurality of respondents (36 percent) carrying degrees in business or public administration.

Regardless of educational background, there’s some consensus on what experiences are most valuable for CEOs. Close to half of all respondents claimed advanced skills in administration (48 percent), executive and senior management (48 percent), communications and PR (47 percent), finance (45 percent), and government relations (40 percent). That might serve as a pretty good short list of essential CEO skills, though it’s a little disappointing to see low marks for matters such as technology (13 percent), research (11 percent), and international affairs (8 percent).

There’s also some common ground in terms of what activities they pursued that they feel helped them get the job. Respondents gave high marks to developing a professional network and earning an advanced degree, but those with more experience in the association industry were more likely to credit continuing education (such as through ASAE) than those with other professionals, who tended to emphasize board service and other volunteer activity.

Even so, the message is clear that a breadth of knowledge and a capacity for flexibility are essential parts of the CEO toolbox. In that regard, the association world mirrors the corporate sector, where a widely applicable skill set is increasingly prized over industry-specific experience. In a 2014 report from the Wharton Business School on corporate CEO career paths, professor Peter Cappelli said that grooming leaders from within “is less important now. Companies are a little more open to hiring people from outside their industry.”

In that regard, to be an attractive candidate for those positions in the association world, building up a range of knowledge is key. “If you are already working in an association, pursue experience in a variety of functional areas or volunteer for cross-departmental projects,” write the authors of the ASAE Foundation/Naylor survey. “If you are in another industry, volunteer for a variety of committees for your industry’s association to learn more about the blood and guts of association work.”

Another way to put this is to say that no matter where you’re coming from, you have a learning curve to conquer. In a 2014 AN Plus article on distinctions between association and industry experience, longtime association executive David Patt told me, “In most of the associations I’ve worked [for], I came with little or no content knowledge, and that enabled me to make objective decisions. Still, I learned industry and professional issues very quickly simply by being there.”

And that ability and eagerness to learn may be the most essential and defining feature of all.

What aspects of your education and experience were most essential during your own path to the C-suite? 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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