Top 10 Things Association CEOs Must Never Forget
When I am asked what it’s like to head an association, I respond by saying that it’s very much like managing a small business that you don’t own, but which has a governance structure that could run a multinational company. Consequently, collaborative strategy-making and managing the expectations of widely different constituent groups becomes the central part of a CEO’s professional life. Reflecting on my more than 28 years as an association CEO, in two professional associations and one trade association, I offer my top ten things to never forget.
1 You Exist to Make Your Members More Successful
Understand your real mission: Regardless of how socially responsible your official mission statement might look, your real mission is to serve, protect and promote your members’ interests and advance their cause. Forget that and you will veer perilously off the mark.
2 Dream Your Way to Success
You need a vision: Have a clear and easy-to-communicate “willed future”—that is the destination you ultimately want to reach. Create a simple image of where you want to be. Do not be afraid to dream—remember, Martin Luther King Jr. did not say “I have a strategic plan,” he said, “I have a dream.” This is what vision is all about.
3 Priorities Exist So You Can Say ‘No’ to Good Ideas
You cannot be all things to all people: Strategic planning is as much about clearly articulating what you are not going to do as it is about what you will do. Focus on what is important and don’t let anyone hijack the association with a good idea that does not fit the strategic goals. Without clear priorities, you will end up a mile wide and an inch deep. Learn to do less with more. You are better off doing a few things really well than a lot of things poorly.
4 Always Have Your Finger on the Pulse of Your Constituents
Make certain that your members feel “seen, heard and understood”: If you want to meet your members’ needs, first, you need to clearly understand what those needs are. Make sure that you are in constant touch with all your constituents, and especially your owners. Take their pulse often.
5 Embrace the Fact that You Are in the People Business
Respect people: Be nice and kind. Nurture harmonious relationships with everyone – not just with those that have power over you. First, it’s more fun that way, and much more productive in the long term. It is those who work with you that will bring your mission, vision and strategies to life—make sure that they feel valued.
6 Lead From the Bottom
Know your place and be a servant leader: As an association CEO, you are at the bottom of an inverted pyramid that is populated with your owners and constituents. Learn to manage their expectations.
7 You Are Not the Only Boss
Adhere to the laws of good governance: Remember that the members are the owners and they have a say in how their needs are being met and how their association is being managed. Yes, the old adage is true: “The board manages tomorrow and the staff manages today,” but sometimes there is an overlap and you need to manage that too.
8 The Bottom Line Is… The Bottom Line Counts
Always meet the highest accounting standards: Unless your finances are well managed, none of the good things you do will matter to your political bosses. When it comes to money matters and sound financial administration, you need to be totally responsible and completely transparent.
9 You Need Your Staff More Than They Need You
Be a team player: You can’t conduct an orchestra without the musicians. Build a team of talented people and value individuals who are always looking for a better way to do things. Be open and fair and celebrate success as often as you can. Also, give the team members a chance to shine and take a bow.
10 Be the Strategy Champion
Be known as the one who is driven by strategy: As an association CEO, be clear on purpose and vision and become the guardian of the priorities who ensures that the association leadership stays on course.
The Golden Tip
If I were asked to choose only one of the above tips as the one that has been most influential in my career, it would be #3, Priorities exist so you can say no to good ideas. An association cannot be the force of good for everything. The toughest part of implementing a “do less with more” strategy is learning how to say “no”. It is not easy to shut down programs or dissolve committees. It is even harder to turn down the many well-intentioned ideas from well-meaning people that simply don’t fit. Failure to do so, however, puts an association at risk of being sidetracked or worse yet hijacked.