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Today’s CEO

In-Demand Skills for Today’s CEOs

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The past year forced association executives into challenges and decisions they may not have been ready for, and the crises of 2020 will have long-term impacts. As 2021 dawns, the most important skills that CEOs can cultivate are the ones they’ll need to excel as change leaders.

To helm organizations that will succeed in meeting the challenges ahead—as the pandemic continues and a recovery eventually follows—association CEOs need a slew of skills that will help them take on significant and lasting change.

“There aren’t that many businesses or companies who can say they aren’t in substantial change,” says Cynthia Mills, FASAE, CAE, an association leadership consultant and president and founder of the Leaders’ Haven. “Not only do you have to be the change leader and understand change, you have to love being that kind of leader.”

Nell Edgington, president of the management consulting firm Social Velocity, added that the requirements of leadership are pivoting as well. “So much more is going to be asked of leaders,” Edgington says. “Basic things like flexibility, openness to working with others, building networks, the ability to understand your organization.”

“One of the things that we have to have as CEOs is potentially a slightly higher risk tolerance than is comfortable. Not unreasonable risks, but risk married with pilot-and-test. When great new strategy comes out, you can test something on a smaller level.” —Cynthia Mills, FASAE, CAE, The Leaders’ Haven

Risk and Opportunity

The pandemic changed the 2020 economic landscape, and even with a vaccine rolling out, the financial woes and strategic changes it brought about will leave ripples for years to come. CEOs need a mindset that focuses on the revenue and operational sides of their associations.

“You will not be a successful CEO if you don’t understand the financial underpinnings of an organization,” Mills says. “CEOs have to be entrepreneurial in what they do. They have to know how to develop a sustainable business model.”

Because business models are changing rapidly, an essential skill will be the ability to accept risk in reasonable proportions. “One of the things that we have to have as CEOs is potentially a slightly higher risk tolerance than is comfortable,” she says. “Not unreasonable risks, but risk married with pilot-and-test. When great new strategy comes out, you can test something on a smaller level.”

Edgington adds that leaders who do well will also have shifted their mindset to see economic opportunities. “They have to shift away from that scarcity mindset—that there is not enough—to the mindset of abundance,” she says. “They need to look for and see the opportunities, embrace them, and access them.”

This means cultivating the ability to reach out. “I think a lot of times, leaders in the [association] sector feel isolated and get stuck in the silos,” Edgington says. “The opportunity is to view your work as part of a much larger network,” which includes your members. “Really tap into those populations and view them as partners to do the work.”

Effective leaders will also look for opportunities for outside collaboration, asking, “How can we connect outside our walls of an organization?” Edgington says. “Who are the other organizations we can collaborate with? Who are the influencers we can connect with?”

Mills noted that being open to new possibilities will be key. “There is no playbook” for the aftermath of 2020 she says. “We are designing the playbook as we go.”

“Soft” Skills Required

Being a good motivator and manager of people in ways that rely on interpersonal skills will also be crucial for leaders in 2021. “There was a time in which things like being transformational, being empathetic, being resilient—the things that were labeled soft skills—they almost felt optional,” Mills says. “Those skills have become more necessary in the environment that we’re in.”

While those already in the C-suite can hone their skills, those interested in moving to those top spots should grab any opportunity to learn through experience.

“If you’re an aspiring CEO, it is really important to not find yourself only ticking off task lists,” Mills says. “You’ve got to be in those leadership experiential moments. Ask your CEO if you can sit in on meetings that you wouldn’t have been included on. You can ask to be an observer in a board meeting or a leadership team meeting.”

Perhaps the most crucial skill for CEOs in these times is finding excitement in working in a shifting environment.

“There has never been a more exciting time to design than when there is movement and willingness for transformation to occur,” Mills says. “Leaders today need to be excited about that. If you’re not excited, this doesn’t mean you can’t be a leader, but this may not be the right time.”

Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now.

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