What are the essential traits needed to be a successful association CEO? If you look at books on the subject of leadership, you get diverse opinions and insights. If you go to Amazon to find books on the subject, there are a stunning 82,000. If you limit your Amazon search to just association leadership, that inventory is over 3,100. Perhaps too daunting for many to find the answer. If you add in the thousands of articles on the subject of essential CEO traits, you are inundated with perspectives, experiences, research, and interviews of what makes a great association CEO. It can be both challenging and confusing to cut through all the information clutter to determine those traits that elevate a person from being merely a good custodian of an association to being both a great custodian and a great leader for a vibrant and effective organization.
I have had the wonderful opportunity to serve as the President and CEO of two prominent trade associations where I learned leadership lessons from top individuals in the beer and broadcast industries. Complementing that experience is my current role as host of CEO Updates award winning series, Association Newsmakers, where I am afforded the opportunity to interview, learn, and discuss issues surrounding association leadership with titans in the association business. Here I articulate the eight essential traits of exceptional association leaders I have learned over my career.
1. A CEO must achieve quantifiable and measured results
Achieving real results - enacting a bill, altering a regulation, increasing the size of a trade show, or expanding member dues revenue, or increasing non-dues revenue streams result from setting and exceeding quantifiable goals. Unfortunately, Washington is filled with senior staffs that worry less about ‘bottom line’ results, and are more concerned with the latest rumors on who is coming into or leaving the President’s Administration. These individuals react with extreme skepticism on ‘measuring results,’ arguing some association priorities cannot be measured. Many CEOs disagree, as I do. Exceptional associations have a CEO and an entire staff whose activities are measured on annual results with specific numerics. When a goal is more qualitative, a proxy for measurement needs to be put in place. Without measurement, associations end up operating on the defensive with few, if any, accomplishments to show stakeholders. Most importantly, the goals of the CEO should permeate throughout the entire organization so that the entire team focuses on attaining the same results.
Moreover, associations with senior staff should be required to explain their goals to the entire organizational team. By doing this, individuals both better understand and better internal his or her goals. In my case, this meant each year the top Executive Vice President’s of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) would present their individual annual goals to the entire team and each would know what was expected of them. Whether it is presenting individual goals to over 100 team members or just four, getting senior leadership presenting individual goals brings ownership and keeps the organization focused on what matters.
2. A CEO must communicate the mission and vision of the organization to Congress and the general public with passion and authenticity
The CEO must be able to communicate the vision and mission of the organization with passion and authenticity. He or she must have that passion and dedication to move the organization toward achieving the mission. Effective organizations share a common simple vision that should be easily articulated by all team members. For example, in Washington, over 63,000 trade associations are all trying to influence the U.S. Congress. Those that succeed have staffs that have internalized the organization’s mission and are able to articulate to Members of Congress and congressional staff. But it is the CEO that sets the tone for the organization. Exceptional association leaders exude the mission and vision of the enterprise.
3. A CEO must demonstrate superior stewardship
Tragically, stewardship is often forgotten in Washington. For many, the trappings of being an association CEO often mean club memberships, first class airfare, limousines, extravagant accommodations and other expenditures to make the CEOs life easier or less burdensome. But real power and influence does not come from someone seeing you get in or out of a limo at the Capitol. It comes from being effective. Of course, I am not advocating that CEOs of organizations take an oath of poverty. Instead, expenditures on CEO trappings, in particular, are ‘opportunity costs’ - money that could be used for other purposes, including building your congressional reputation or industry image. Exceptional association CEOs regularly ask themselves: Does this expenditure serve the association and its members well? Influential and powerful CEOs create a culture of exceptional stewardship.
Moreover, a culture of extravagancy that exists in some organizations often goes beyond the CEO office and dangerously permeates throughout the organization. One lesson I learned from interviewing exceptional CEOs is that just spending money will not bring results. The effective CEO ensures his or her team spends money smartly and continues move momentum forward to achieve the mission.
4. A CEO must be able to collaborate with all stakeholders
With associations being voluntary organizations, an exceptional CEO will listen and work hard to collorbate with key stakeholders. Stories abound of association CEOs who are shielded from their members because staff believes he or she might hear bad news. Worse yet, the CEO becomes ‘walled off’ from staff and stakeholders and the organization discourages honest and direct conversations with the leader. Ineffective CEOs believe that he or she should remain above classes of stakeholders or individuals who are not worthy of his or her time. The exceptional association CEOs see themselves as true ‘servant leaders’ who are humble and work hard to listen. Exceptional leaders do not provide the answers; they encourage legitimate, honest discussion and work to achieve the desired result.
5. A CEO must be able to build an exceptional team
Every exceptional association CEO builds a great team. He or she works with their leadership team to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the assocaition’s staff. The assessment is made of who stays and who departs, focusing on the contributions and strengths of the individuals. The CEO then looks externally to fill the staff holes with the best individuals possible. This takes time and continues to evolve over time. Then the CEO works to keep the team excited, engaged, fulfilled, and appreciated.
6. A CEO should be able to anticipate ‘crisis communication ‘ through pro-active initiatives
We all know the communication world has changed. No longer can associations play a ‘wait and see’ game when bad news occurs or when the public is drawn to the association because of a bad incident. We are now in the age where a tweet, or Facebook post, or an unfortunate comment on TV can destroy an organization’s reputation. The CEO must be constantly challenging staff to look for communication weaknesses and be thinking about what can be done to be proactive on messaging. The exceptional leader asks are we doing everything possible to anticipate, minimize and resolve future crises before they occur? During my time with the beer wholesalers, we correctly anticipated and thwarted attacks on moderate consumption of beer as being dangerously unhealthy. Our proactive, scientific-based approach and public discussion on the health benefits of responsible and moderate beer consumption prevailed. Today, when you type in “beer and health” into a search engine, over 290,000 results appear. Those at the top of the search first page reinforce the message started and amplified at the NBWA ten years ago. Sometimes a crisis just occurs: but often anticipation can prevent or disarm its momentum.
7. A CEO should serve as the face of the industry or sector
Public verdicts on industry issues are almost instant in today’s media dominant world. There was a time when the association or corporate CEO did not need to be trained nor had the obligation to speak directly to America through media distribution platforms. But that day is gone. Today, the public wants to see and hear from the leader speaking on behalf of the association, industry, or company, especially if the sector is facing a broadside media attack. Certainly, the senior communications staff can often appear to fend off many challenges an association or industry faces. But on the big issues, the top person is the one who must step into the breach and articulate the well thought-out response or position. The public expects to hear from the person “in charge.”
One positive consequence for the CEO who serves as a public spokesperson for an association is the increased attention the leader then receivers from Capitol Hill. This strengthens the organization’s advocacy efforts. The late Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) regularly appeared on the Oscars. I had great admiration for Jack and initially thought the appearance was strictly based on ego. But it wasn’t. He told me during one of our joint visits to the Senate that his real objective for appearing on the Oscars was to be seen by all the Members of Congress and congressional staff that watched the award show. Then, whenever he wanted to visit a member on Capitol Hill, he would quickly be remembered and get immediate face time. I saw it work again and again as we lobbied together. Jack taught me and likely other association CEOs a valuable lesson on the unintended benefits of appearing in the media to increase the association’s influence and power in the halls of Congress.
8. A CEO should continually seek new knowledge to create value for association stakeholders
Influential and powerful leaders constantly seek new knowledge about the industry he or she leads. This is hard for the busy leader. Those who are exceptional are constant learners. The leader walks the floor of the trade show to seek out new products or innovative services. The leader looks for unusual perspectives on the future of the industry. One exceptional CEO recently described this thirst for new knowledge on Association Newsmakers as having a bit of a ‘paranoid streak’ about the future. You can tell those exceptional CEOs who take this responsibility seriously. They engage, ask questions, take notes, read critical analysis to learn and understand what adversaries are saying and seek out a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions. Those who relegate the future to junior staff signal the organization’s team that the future is not important. Exceptional leaders help set the future vision of the industry by being interested as a ‘life-long learner.’
Certainly, we might be able to add other traits that make an exceptional association CEO. You may have a few I missed. But I believe these traits seem to be a baseline for individuals that want to deliver value to their stakeholders and build a legacy. The traits ensure the individual makes a powerful contribution to his or her organization. The role of the association CEO is too important just be be merely average.