The search for a new CEO always starts with a long wish list of characteristics, usually paired with the caveat “There is no way anyone could meet these requirements, but this is what we want to see in the candidates you bring us.” We hear this statement all the time from the association boards of -directors we work with to locate a new CEO.
At first, their wish list of CEO characteristics is long. But as the search progresses, the same four or five key criteria always move to the top.
Here’s what boards really want in an association CEO—and tips for how you can show them you’ve got what it takes.
1. Strong communication skills
Communication is the exchange of thoughts and information, but it is startling to see how few -people can actually do it well. We recently had a highly reputable executive so thoroughly confuse the CEO selection committee that none of us could figure out what he was saying. He rambled left, right, up, and down and then stopped and asked, “What was the question again?”
The best CEOs are clear and concise. Remember the simple principle: Less is more. Say what you need, with no ifs, ands, or buts. You’d be surprised at how many senior executives obfuscate, reverse themselves, take multiple positions, and leave audiences confused and unimpressed.
Recently, a board talked with us about two executives they met. One was “warm and fuzzy” and fun to be with. The other was more direct, hard-hitting, and slightly edgy. They told us that, after some thought, they shifted from their initial selection of Mr. Warm and Fuzzy to Mr. Direct. They came to realize Mr. Warm and Fuzzy also made a lot of fuzzy statements, while Mr. Direct pulled no punches and told them how it was.
2. Entrepreneurial mentality
Entrepreneurs reach out beyond their own organization and industry; they listen and talk to people from a wide range of backgrounds. They encourage and solicit off-the-wall ideas and then use experience and imagination to make the idea come to life. Boards like a CEO with an entrepreneurial bend who can think beyond the obvious—who is not afraid to try out new ideas that come from beyond the association management norm.
Demonstrate that you are on the lookout for—and open to—innovative management and leadership ideas from anywhere; from other CEOs, other industries, even other countries. Boards often say they need a CEO with new “energy” and ideas that will either bring in new income or cut costs without sacrificing services. Come equipped with some innovative ways in which you can effect positive change in the association through nontraditional means. And if you never thought of yourself as a particularly inventive risk-taker-type, then surround yourself with people who are.
3. Strategic thinker
Every single board asks for a strategic thinker. Candidates with a strategic orientation are able to clearly articulate their vision of where the organization can be in two, three, or five years.
Whether it’s with a well thought-out handout prepared ahead of time or simply by telling “war stories” of developing and implementing past strategic concepts, you can win over the board with your vision of the organization’s limitless potential under your leadership. Of course, this requires a lot of homework. More than arming yourself with knowledge, conveying your strategic thinking capabilities is a matter of exciting imaginations—yours and theirs.
4. Business savvy
As associations shift away from the “old boy’s club” way of doing business to a more sophisticated corporate model, boards have become more focused on selecting executives with broad business savvy to lead their organizations. Today, boards want CEO candidates who have overall business experience in accounting and finance, management (of the board, the staff, the volunteers), marketing, communications, and technology. They do not expect expertise in all these areas, but they do expect the CEO to have broad experience across several fields (and to know where to brush up on the basics of these disciplines).
If you don’t already have an extensive background, broaden your involvement to diversify your skill set. Association experience can be very attractive, but if you’re an association political affairs director or communications director and your expertise is limited to one sector, it makes you a less desirable candidate. Move beyond your comfort zone by taking on responsibilities (perhaps even a volunteer role in a community organization) requiring you to learn a whole new way of thinking. Boards want CEOs who can move through the basic disciplines of management with a degree of confidence.
5. A motivator
Of course, all these new communication, strategic thinking, entrepreneurial, and management talents don’t really work well if you are not able to motivate the world to follow you. Boards like to see excitement and commitment—a real passion for what you are doing. This all translates into the motivation factor. Boards ask themselves, “Can this candidate get the board, the staff, the public excited about our issues?”
This is not to say that you have to be a fearless General Patton-style leader, but George Patton’s strengths included an absolute commitment to getting the job done. Like all great leaders, Patton had great passion that motivated others to follow. If you want to lead, if you are to be the CEO, you need to care—to have a passion for all aspects of the job. Although you cannot manufacture the kind of ardor that motivates devotion, you can stoke the flames of passion by reminding yourself precisely what it is about becoming a CEO that so inspires you. That passion, that enthusiasm, will become contagious and motivate others to listen to you, to work with you, to follow your lead.
To prepare yourself to be an association CEO—or a better CEO—assess your present strengths and experiences. Do they include most of these five attributes above? If not, start to build up those aspects of your experience and take your AE career to the next level.
Leonard Pfeiffer is a 25-year veteran in the executive search business and the founder of Leonard Pfeiffer & Company, (pfeiffercompany.com; 202/737-6327), a retained executive search firm that has recruited hundreds of CEOs and senior executives for organizations, including REALTOR® associations, nationwide.