Leading During a Pandemic: The New CEO Job Search

COVID-19 may inspire (or force) association leaders to go on the job hunt. Candidates and search committees alike will need to adjust.

This may seem like a bad time to talk about searching for that bigger and better CEO gig. Most executives at the moment are busy enough in their current jobs, leading their staffs, members, and volunteers through office closures, postponed and restructured meetings, and a recession.

But disruptions do exactly that—disrupt, moving organizations and their leaders in unexpected directions. According to an ASAE Research Foundation survey conducted in late April, nearly two-thirds of associations (64 percent) say their workplaces have experienced moderate to extreme disruption. For CEOs who are thinking of a different perch, or other leaders who want to rise to the corner office, it’s a good time to at least consider what skill sets will be meaningful in the future, and what a new-normal job search might look like.

We’re just not in a trust us space.

In a new white paper, “Search in the Time of COVID: Becoming a CEO in the 2020s” [PDF], Leaders’ Haven founder Cynthia Mills, FASAE, CAE, and Vetted Solutions president and founder Jim Zaniello, FASAE, explore some of the themes that will mark job searches in the coming years—more intense scrutiny of associations’ finances and culture, an emphasis on leaders’ transformational skills instead of resume lines, and a more conservative approach to compensation. (The paper addresses the job search from the CEO’s perspective; a forthcoming follow-up will look at boards.)

“As this plays out, we’re going to see mergers, we’re going to see movement to AMCs, and we will see some associations that will go out of business,” Mills told me. “So CEOs who are doing an excellent job of looking at the landscape are recognizing that they’ve got to look out for their organization, and then they also have to look out for their career. People are looking at the idea of a plan B.”

I spoke with Mills about the white paper and some of the things that boards and CEOs alike should be thinking about in the job market, and she shared a few additional insights.

Associations will want a tested change agent in their next executive. “All of the baseline fundamental skills, all of the CAE skills, all of those things still have to be there—those haven’t gone away,” Mills says. “But being a transformational leader has moved up the list.” Candidates should be prepared to answer how they responded to divisive issues, and not just COVID-19. “How are you going to navigate disparate views at a time in which we need to make sure that we are retaining our membership and providing value in a potential long-term financial crisis? And during the biggest transition and transformation that we’re going to ever have seen with AI, and so on? Those are the kinds of complex questions I think [candidates] are going to get hit with.”

Non-CEOs needn’t feel shut out from the CEO job search. If you’ve proved your leadership mettle as a CEO in the current moment, that speaks well of you. But candidates from elsewhere in the C-suite aren’t at a disadvantage, so long as they can demonstrate innovative qualities. “If you’ve got a change-leadership track record, if you’ve got the entrepreneurialism, I believe that boards are going to be looking for that,” Mills says. “They want to be confident that you’ve handled something, whether it’s COVID-19, or the financial side, or the organizational dynamic.”

Candidates need to ask tough questions. Search committees need to get comfortable fielding them. As the white paper explains, a scan of a potential employer’s latest Form 990 and other financial statements isn’t going to provide a satisfactory picture of an association’s financial health. In interviews, Mills says, candidates should be willing to ask follow-ups on questions about finances and strategy related to the pandemic. Similarly, search committees should be ready to open up. “You must be comfortable with candidates asking you for more detailed information earlier in the process, because we’re just not in a ‘trust us’ space,” she says.

There’s no room for ceremonial slots on the search committee now. The right CEO fit is always crucial, but more so now, which means that it’s better to save search-committee seats for people actively leading the organization instead of past presidents and other figures who are relatively disconnected from an association facing a crisis. “I would be a lot more uncomfortable as a candidate if the search committee was not primarily made up of members of the current board,” Mills says. “Those are the people who are currently charged with leading the organization through this very unique time. So if you’ve got a search committee that’s made up of former leaders or people who aren’t right there in the fire with you, how are you going to get the answers to important questions?”

(LumineImages/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

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