How a Leadership Search Can Hone Your Mission

The American Library Association’s search for a new executive director offers a new way of thinking about a familiar debate about who ought to lead at associations.

Any association that’s thinking about what leadership means for its organization should take a look at what the American Library Association is doing right now.

This may not seem like obvious advice, since what’s happening at ALA is relatively contentious. The association is searching for a new executive director, and its leadership has found itself in the midst of a debate over what qualifications the successful applicant for the position should have. Next month members will vote on a resolution stating that the executive director must possess an ALA-certified master’s degree or similar credential. The resolution was the result of member-led petition in response to an ALA Council decision last year to make such credentials preferred rather than required.

ALA is having this debate because its bylaws necessitate it, but the issues it’s considering are ones that every association ought to consider.

Such a seemingly minor shift has had a broad impact in terms of how many ALA members perceive their perception and its leadership—a boilerplate post on the matter by ALA president James Neal generated dozens of comments in response. “The Executive Director needs to be an exemplary association executive, which is its own profession with its own practices, competencies, and capabilities,” one person argued. “To allow the possibility of hiring a non-MLS executive director is tantamount to dismissing the value of the MLS degree,” argued another. “It would most certainly put the credibility of the association into question.”

Longtime association professionals have heard this song so often that it may hardly even register anymore—it’s that dusty classic called “Association or Industry Experience?,” and it’s been in regular rotation for years. Association executives come from all kinds of backgrounds, ASAE Foundation research shows, and experience in the association world or your association’s particular industry may ultimately matter less than having baseline administration and management skills. And different backgrounds offer different benefits: Executives with association experience, one study shows, do better at setting strategy with their boards, while industry pros have a better grasp of outside trends.

The debate seems to be a new one for some ALA members, with some arguing that there’s been a lack of transparency in the process. But at least in advance of the vote that put the new resolution on the table, ALA seems, if anything, overly conscientious about communicating the stakes to its members. It’s shared a mass of materials relating to the executive director search, including a full transcript of an ALA Council discussion of the matter. Sixteen pages of procedural discussion may be a bit much for the average member who just wants to know what the consequences of their decision are. For that, it’s produced a tidy three-page Word-doc overview of the pros and cons of making the degree a requirement for the executive director.

This is a good thing. Even if the correct answer to the association-versus-industry debate is “it depends,” the debate is an opportunity for the association’s leaders to hone its mission. Perhaps unintentionally, the column of the document listing the issues at play in the debate serve as a useful summary for the issues all associations consider—or ought to—when discussing their leadership: “Must have an understanding of the values of the profession”; “attract a good pool of people”; “Competencies needed to run this organization”; “Importance of diversity and inclusion in the search”; “Perception of how we value our own degree.”

How important are each of these matters to your organization? ALA is having this debate because its bylaws necessitate it, but the issues it’s considering are ones that every association ought to consider when it comes to their staff and volunteer leaders. What are the values of your profession? How do you know, and how do you identify the people who best serve it? Is D&I a key factor in your decision making when it comes to leadership, and what is your association missing if it’s not? These are all questions that come up in relation to an executive search, but you don’t have to wait until the CEO or board president leaves to start asking them.

ALA is having a debate over what its leadership should look like, but ultimately it’s having a conversation about what its identity is. And that’s one every association can and should be having. To not do it is to miss opportunities to find not just new leaders, but new ways to think about leadership.

What discussions does your association have about what the face of its leadership should look like? Share your experiences in the comments.

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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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