What Recent Changes to the CAE Say About Leadership

An ethics track and a lowered experience requirement recognize the standard-bearing role associations play—and leaders' urge to grasp the association industry faster.

Associations aren’t what they were 20 years ago, or even 10. Websites have moved from desktops to smartphones; annual meetings have gone from plenary-plus-sessions events to more dynamic affairs filled with pop-ups and unconferences; leaders are less pale-male-stale, and they’re running associations with more complicated business models.

So it makes sense that ASAE’s Certified Association Executive credential has had to change as well. Last month ASAE announced a handful of changes to the CAE. Chief among them are the addition of an ethics credit in the requirements for CAE renewal and a reduction in the experience requirement for C-suite leaders from three years to one. (The five-year requirement for association staffers outside the C-suite remains unchanged.)

“We want to ensure that the credential fills a number of key purposes, and one is that it’s an accurate representation of a demonstration of knowledge and applied experience for executives within the association industry,” says Lowell Aplebaum, CAE, chair of the CAE Commission and CEO and strategy catalyst of Vista Cova. “And that of course is not a static state. The industry itself continues to shift and change.”

The new CAE spotlights ethics as a place of continual commitment.

The commission conducts a task analysis every five years to update content for the CAE exam, and one result was an acknowledgement that ethics has been focused on increasingly in recent years across multiple industries. Plenty of recent leadership scandals, inside and outside of nonprofitdom, have shed light on the importance of establishing a solid grasp of ethics. Aplebaum stresses that the new ethics requirement—which takes effect in 2020 and is folded into the 40 credit hours required for renewal—doesn’t reflect a crisis within associations as much as a need to be in line with other credentials.

“That’s something that is more almost coming into alignment with where certification is in terms of what’s expected,” he says.

That said, Aplebaum notes that association leaders can play a unique role as standard-bearers for ethics across industries, and the CAE can play a part in that. Ethics “should be something that we are immersed in, because we are the back-end and support for every single profession out there,” he says. “If we are expecting our lawyers to act ethically and our doctors to act ethically, how can we not prioritize ethics as a place of continual commitment?” (To that end, Aplebaum notes the ethics credit requirement isn’t based on a particular course from ASAE; ethics-based education from state societies, universities, or other qualified providers can fulfill the credit requirement.)

As for the new experience requirement, Aplebaum notes a couple of factors. One is a rise in associations posting ads saying “CAE required” or “CAE preferred” in hiring execs; reducing the required experience from three years to one might help broaden the applicant pool to leaders who commit to pursuing the CAE in their first year.

“Those coming into the profession, if they are becoming an association CEO after having served outside [the industry], there’s often a steep learning curve—they have to get up to speed on what associations are,” he says. “By shifting this requirement, it opens the possibility that as part of onboarding, learning about the association world could be the expectation included for you.”

The change also respects the fact that those who have been in the association world as rank-and-file staffers have already gathered some CAE-applicable experience—so why delay pursuing a CAE for long after those people have reached the C-suite? (And though Aplebaum didn’t speak to this specifically, the change offers a measure of respect to a generation of millennials who are looking for empowerment and authority in their jobs at a faster pace than prior generations.)

In response to the argument that the reduced requirement risks diminishing the demands to qualify for the CAE, Aplebaum says the process is already plenty demanding, between the required credit hours and the rigors of the exam itself. And he’s confident the new standards will reflect that.

“It should continue to demonstrate that we are able to find that those who hold the CAE have the necessary knowledge and competency for our industry,” he says. “That is the excellence we want demonstrated in those that hold the credential.”

(z_wei/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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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