The Leadership Skills Required of Association CEOs


ASAE | December 5, 2016

The ASAE article, “The Leadership Skills Required of Association CEOs,” is authored by Russell Reynolds Associates Consultant Stephanie Tomasso looks at the leadership skills needed in association CEOs. The article is excerpted below.   

Today's association CEOs must wear more than just an "advocate" hat. Major social, economic, and political changes have led successful association leaders to need the skills of a corporate executive as much as those of an ambassador.

Historically, association CEOs were heavily focused on cultivating political relationships and access. However, economic recession, increased government regulation, a heightened emphasis on transparency, and general political malaise have prompted a new leadership profile to emerge.

While association leaders must still possess public-policy savvy and an ability to develop and maintain critical relationships, they must also demonstrate traditional corporate executive competencies, such as sound business acumen and proven operational expertise.

To assess the profile of this new type of leader, executive search and leadership advisory firm Russell Reynolds Associates asked 14 leading association CEOs to complete three well-validated psychometric assessment tools that focus on traits relevant to leadership roles. The results were aggregated and compared with a group of best-in-class corporate CEOs from RRA's proprietary database to determine on which of the 60 psychometric scales the association CEOs were statistically similar to and different from their corporate peers.

Where Their Leadership Behaviors Align

When comparing association leaders with best-in-class corporate CEOs, we discovered that their profiles are surprisingly similar, with three categories of leadership behavior emerging.

Long-term-oriented and flexible. Both sets of leaders demonstrate a strategic and creative mindset, adopting a long-term approach to challenges. Given the volatile and uncertain political landscape, association executives must grasp emerging threats quickly and creatively forge relationships to protect the interests they represent.

Committed to action and outcomes. Much like their corporate peers, association CEOs are committed, results-oriented, and decisive. Their sense of obligation likely helps them connect with members and adapt to their changing expectations, while their goal-driven approach reflects an increasingly fast-paced environment.

Modest and humble. Association chief executives and corporate CEOs are unpretentious, prizing the organization and its membership over personal gain or recognition. Humility enables association CEOs to ensure productive partnerships with policymakers, prioritize members' interests, and avoid membership discord.

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The Leadership Skills Required of Association CEOs