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Mapping Your Route to the Association C-Suite

The path to the association CEO role is different for every leader, but new research from the ASAE Foundation reveals some common elements, including a focus on experience, continued learning, and networking.

By Kristin Clarke, CAE

New research alerts aspiring association CEOs that the road to the top is not as straight as they may expect, but certain career stopovers can help speed the way.

In the ASAE Foundation's latest research brief, Pathways to CEO Success: How Experience, Learning, and Networks Shape Association CEO Careers, more than 400 association CEOs responded to a survey exploring their career journeys and the professional development steps that finally drove them to the summit.

Two dominant leadership paths exist, according to the study. Association CEOs self-identify either as career association management professionals or career-shifting industry insiders.

The former are comfortable leading any association, regardless of mission, and frequently credit professional credentials, such as ASAE's Certified Association Executive (CAE), with helping them climb to the top rung. Non-association professionals who come to the role from the industry or profession that the association represents tend to favor an MBA or other degree, and they were more dominant among the 30 percent of respondents who said they "fell into association work."

Both types of association CEOs strongly advocate for a lifelong-learning mindset and at least one professional credential. Indeed, 40 percent rated such credentials as "very important" or "extremely important" in their successful search for a CEO position. Significant numbers gave those same ratings to earning an advanced degree (48 percent) and pursuing continuing professional education (41 percent and 36 percent, depending on the provider).

Even more respondents (56 percent) cited development of a strong informal professional network as very or extremely important. According to Cynthia Mills, FASAE, CAE—president and CEO of the Leaders' Haven consulting firm, who often coaches rising leaders—strategic relationship-building can be vital to a future CEO, especially in obtaining that first breakthrough job.

Despite its clear advantages, a sound network does not compensate for skill gaps. "Many respondents stressed the importance of obtaining a variety of work experiences en route to becoming an association CEO, including work in other sectors and industries, and experiences at different levels of an industry," noted the researchers, who said respondents typically had spent 20 years of their 31-year careers (on average) in associations. More specifically, responding CEOs had moved among an average of five functional areas, most commonly administration, executive management, communications, financial operations, and government relations.

In addition to those traditional functional experiences, Mills expects boards to start demanding leadership skills that demonstrate innovation, entrepreneurship, and strategic thinking. "Our business models are changing so much," she says. "The bottom line is that you must be an expert in change leadership."

Mills notes that the generational change occurring in the workforce will have an impact on future opportunities for aspiring CEOs. According to the research, respondents with association experience who set an early goal of a CEO job achieved it, on average, by age 38. Non-association professionals and leaders who didn't choose the CEO route until later took three years longer, generally succeeding by age 41.

That number likely will drop, says Mills. "With fewer Gen Xers to replace boomers, it's going to require millennials to step into those roles earlier, which will lower the CEO age to at least 35," she says.

Kristin Clarke, CAE, is executive director of the Section on Women's Health of the American Physical Therapy Association. Email: [email protected]

Boost Your Network

Cynthia Mills, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of the Leaders' Haven consulting firm, shares three networking tips for aspiring association leaders:

Join CAE study groups. "Credentialed leaders often teach those modules and are accessible online or for lunches and may agree to be a mentor," she says.

Get involved in a local society of association executives. In a local SAE, you can bond authentically by working side by side with current CEOs on common projects.

Apply for ASAE's Diversity Executive Leadership Program if you're eligible. "It brings access to mentors, coaches, and CEO veterans who care about the next generation of leaders," Mills says.

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