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Essentials for Today’s CEOs
Learning and Development

Why CEOs Need to Make Time for Professional Development

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Just because you’ve reached the top of the ladder doesn’t mean it’s time to stop learning. To effectively lead their organizations, champion innovation, and tackle the unique challenges they face, association CEOs need to make time for professional development opportunities.

The association industry is facing disruptions in several areas.

“It’s being disrupted in terms of its member base; how members are finding knowledge; how they’re networking and connecting with peers; and in terms of revenue, politics, and many other areas,” said Shira Lotzar, chief engagement officer at Purposeful Hire. “These disruptions mean CEOs can’t afford to bury their heads in the sand.”

Instead, CEOs should invest in their own professional development to stay ahead and adapt to the needs of their members and association.

“You need to be a continuous learner to lead an association,” said Lynn M. Gangone, EdD, CAE, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). “Leaders need to find opportunities to take calculated risk, and they can’t do that without professional development.”

Engaging in professional development will help CEOs not only ensure their skills stay relevant but also develop expertise in new areas that can inform their leadership practices and advance the goals of their organizations.

Keeping the Saw Sharp

Devin Jopp, ED, MS, chief executive officer at the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, has found that professional development for CEOs may look different than for other association staff.

“Early in your career, professional development can help you build skills in teamwork or strategic planning,” he said. “But for CEOs, it’s more about how you improve your impact, how you keep the saw sharp, and how you deal with the complexities that arise from managing an association.”

According to Lotzar, CEOs need to build their skills in terms of being innovative and learning how to manage change. To stay ahead, she recommends they look outside their own association and examine how other industry leaders are advancing change.

Jopp keeps up his skills through working with mentors and executive coaches. Mentors and coaches provide fresh perspectives, which can be helpful as CEOs work to stay agile and adapt to changes within or outside of the organization.

“It’s often helpful to find coaches outside of the association space,” Jopp said. “One of my executive coaches was a former military officer. He was great at advising me on adaptation, change management, and methods to build an effective team.”

In addition, Jopp said peer networks and board service can also prove beneficial for CEOs.

“I also belong to several roundtable groups where CEOs get together and talk through issues, and serving on other boards can help CEOs gain a better perspective on what your board members are going through,” he said.

“For CEOs, [professional development] is more about how you improve your impact, how you keep the saw sharp, and how you deal with the complexities that arise from managing an association.”—Devin Jopp, ED, MS, Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology

Becoming a Master Generalist

In their role, CEOs need to know a little bit about everything. To achieve that goal, Gangone decided to pursue her Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential in 2022. Initially, she was somewhat skeptical because AACTE was her fourth association role and she’d already received a doctoral degree.

“From an academic perspective, I had all the skills to lead a higher education association, but I thought a CAE would be useful because of the professional development opportunities it provided,” she said.

Studying for the CAE was an eye-opening experience for Gangone because it showed her how much she knew and how much more there was to learn about association management. Though her doctorate was useful, the learning and work that came with the CAE helped inform Gangone’s leadership style.

“As CEO, it’s important for me to speak intelligently about a host of issues that I didn’t understand before my degree like legal and tax issues,” Gangone said. “I needed to know more than I knew, and this CAE credential amplified that information and had me considering different strategies from a leadership perspective.”

For example, under Gangone’s leadership, AACTE became a fully remote workforce. What she learned about association operations through studying for her CAE informed that decision.

“There’s a difference between operating remotely because you have to and it [being] a strategic decision,” she said. “Professional development can help you understand remote work from a strategic perspective, potential pitfalls and opportunities, and how to lead and conduct onboarding in that environment.”

Whether it’s to stay agile in an ever-changing environment or to improve knowledge and skills, professional development should be a critical element of every CEO’s workload.

“Being a CEO is a lonely job. You sit above staff and under the board, so you don’t always have colleagues you can bounce ideas off of,” Jopp said. “Being authentic and open to feedback and looking for opportunities to challenge yourself is one of the most important parts to strengthening your role and your organization.”

Hannah Carvalho

Hannah Carvalho is Senior Editor at Associations Now.

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