Inside the CEO Job Hunt

By: Nancy Green, CAE

CEO interviews are a delicate dance, and even experienced execs can find it difficult to know if they're a perfect match for a particular association. One CEO went undercover to help you know what to look for the next time you speak with a search committee. Plus: A detailed list of positive indicators and warning signs to watch out for during interviews for a CEO position.

These days, applying for a top association or nonprofit job seems less like interviewing and more like detective work. Figuring out whether an association is right for you requires all kinds of investigating. What does the search process suggest about the organization's culture? How is the CEO role really perceived and valued? What can you tell from salary negotiations about whether you'll be compensated fairly?

Perhaps most important, will you genuinely mesh with the board?

To find out how today's leaders dig up answers to questions like these, I went undercover. I conducted candid but confidential interviews with search consultants and CEOs from associations of all types. The following fictional lunch conversation between two candidates reflects my sources' insights into what can go right—and wrong—during the process of interviewing for a CEO job.


Brian beat Meredith to the restaurant by a few minutes and took a booth. He was looking at the lunch specials when she slid into the seat across from him.

"Wow, Brian, it's great to see you! And we have so much to talk about," she exclaimed.

"I know," he replied. "I can't believe we're both fresh off a CEO search process—and we both have job offers. How often does that happen?"

Then he added: "Assuming something does happen for me."

Meredith gave Brian a long look before picking up her menu. "Let's order so we can focus on the important stuff. Tell me about your interviews, the negotiation process, everything!"

Clues From the Interview

"Well," Brian began, "the search committee was pretty large. There were four past presidents and leaders from all the stakeholder groups—patients, nurses, donors."

"Wow. Were they all actually engaged in the conversation?" Meredith asked.

"It was touch and go," Brian admitted. "I got the impression they had conflicting agendas. And when I asked about their strategic vision for the organization, I got six different answers. It felt like that story about the blind man and the elephant! I pushed the issue by asking about shared priorities, and they acted a little defensive. I didn't get to drill down as much as I would have liked.

"I can't say I came away with a clear sense of where they want the exec to take the association, or even whether they understand what a professional association executive does.

"I could really tell a lot by looking at agendas from past board meetings. I also requested a few annual reports and the most current financials, and I checked their Form 990s on GuideStar. I checked out the trade press, too."

"And I got the impression the board chair sees this position as the pinnacle of his career and doesn't want the CEO to interfere with his vision."

"Ouch. That could be a red flag," Meredith replied, stirring her French onion soup. "My search committee was only about seven members—board president, president-elect, treasurer, three incoming board members. And only one past president.

"They asked good, serious questions. There were some situational ones about how I'd handle sticky problems."

"What kind of questions did you ask them?" asked Brian.

"Someone once told me you should ask your interviewers harder questions than they ask you, so I did. One thing I asked was really helpful. I said, 'You wanted me to tell you how I've handled a conflict with my board chair. Now I'd like to hear how you've handled a conflict with your executive director.' They laughed, but they gave me an example that told me a lot about what a reasonable group this was.

"Then, for the follow-up interview, the search firm asked me to prepare a presentation about the challenges facing the organization and where I would take it if I was hired. I felt like they were really energized about what I had to say. We had a great conversation. We were discussing scenarios—the best strategic choices and their consequences. They seemed to really know the direction they wanted to take."

What Research Can Reveal

"What kind of research did you do before your interviews?" Brian asked.

Meredith scooped up her last crouton. "I could really tell a lot by looking at agendas from past board meetings. The ones I reviewed were heavy on reports, but each agenda seemed to deal with at least one or two open-ended, strategic issues.

New Compensation Study Confirms CEO Salary Trends

As the characters Brian and Meredith note in this fictional scenario, CEO compensation negotiations are easier if all parties involved have done their homework. The latest Association Compensation & Benefits Study from ASAE & The Center, released in May, shows several CEO compensation trends continuing from past studies.

CEO salary correlates to budget size. The 2010 study found a strong positive relationship between total compensation received by a CEO and the total budget size of his or her organization. The associations in the smallest budget category in the study ($300,000 or less) offered a median total compensation of $65,500, while those in the largest budget category (more than $25 million) offered a median total compensation of $423,413.

CEO salary correlates to membership type. Historically, membership type has also had a strong relationship to CEO total compensation, with trade-association CEOs better compensated than their counterparts at individual membership organizations. This year's study reconfirmed this pattern, with trade-association CEOs earning a higher median total compensation in all budget categories.

Female CEOs gaining ground. Male CEOs continue to outnumber female CEOs, but the proportion of women in the CEO ranks has increased somewhat. ASAE's 2004 compensation study showed women made up 33 percent of association CEOs, while in the 2010 study 40 percent of CEOs are women.

However, just as in previous studies, the 2010 study showed that female CEOs generally earn less than their male counterparts: Men had higher median compensation than women in nine of the 10 budget categories.

Also worthy of note is the fact that the percentage of female CEOs is higher in lower-budget associations. In the $300,000-or-less budget category, two thirds of CEOs are women, while in the more-than-$25-million budget category, only one third of CEOs are women.

"I also requested a few annual reports and the most current financials, and I checked their Form 990s on GuideStar. I checked out the trade press, too. I figured I have to know what's being said out in the industry, you know?"

"You're always so prepared." Brian smiled and shook his head. "Seriously, though, you know what really helped me? To learn more about my group, I tracked down a few leading players in their niche. The industry partners I talked with were the most helpful of all. It gave me a good sense of the group's culture and how people view it."

"What about data from the inside?" Meredith asked. "I think you can tell how well informed the board is by how easy it is to get metrics from staff. When I asked for some sales figures, participation data, and membership trends, no one could produce the information. I don't think that's a deal breaker, but it seems like staff haven't been guided to produce what the board needs to know."

"You didn't get pushback for requesting so much?" asked Brian. "My search firm discouraged me from asking for too much information. And I didn't want to get so distracted by data that I would ignore my gut."

Meredith laughed. "I agree—you don't want to overwhelm yourself. So much of a good match has to do with how well you connect during the search conversations. I really did get a sense that we could be great partners."

Brian shook his head. "I wasn't so sure from the conversations I had with my search committee. You know what really struck me? Neither the firm nor the search committee was very willing to talk about the last exec. From what I could gather, he did some real damage to trust with staff and some important member groups."

"Sounds like you've got your work cut out for you!" Meredith said.

"If I accept the offer," Brian said.

"You're really thinking about turning it down?"

The Money Talk

"Well, here's the situation," Brian said. "I could overlook an off-kilter search process that didn't show a strong commitment to any future direction or mandate for change. I could even get beyond the governance red flags. But frankly, what's been toughest is the back and forth on contract negotiations."

Meredith raised her eyebrows.

"First, they wanted me to consider a very low base salary package with significant bonuses for hitting revenue targets," Brian said. "But how do I know the revenue targets are realistic? I can't accept that orientation toward bonus compensation without knowing what I'm getting into.

"Second, they questioned some real basics in my contract. They didn't want to cover my association memberships, professional development, and coaching—apparently because the last exec came from the industry and didn't ask for those kinds of benefits. They're even pushing back on long-term disability insurance."

Brian trailed off with a sigh. "I'm just not sure I have the stomach to fight for every little thing. If this negotiation is any indication of what the whole relationship would be like, this job could mean big trouble!"

"I suppose I shouldn't talk about my offer, then," Meredith said sheepishly.

"No, go ahead," Brian said. "I'd love to hear about it."

"I was pleasantly surprised. The search firm clearly did its research. When I became a finalist, the group sent me the core contract elements and a tight salary range so I could be sure we were in the same ballpark before we got to the point of them making an offer. There was even a clause outlining the relationship between CEO, staff, and board. It was nice to see that in writing.

"Performance pay came up for me, too. I was OK with the bonus targets once they agreed to revisit them in 18 months rather than three years. The only sticking point left is carrying over at least a couple of weeks of vacation. Apparently that makes them nervous because the last exec saved up a whole year of vacation time and took it all with him in compensation.

"I was really impressed—they did their homework by checking industry data, and they clearly were serious about presenting a good offer that would make me want to take the job and stay with it."

"Congratulations, Meredith. It really sounds like a good fit."

"Thanks, Brian," Meredith said. "I guess you've got a lot to think about. If you do accept the job, you'll have to keep your expectations in check. You might be spending your first year just building trust and fixing what's broken. But the effort could pay off in the long term, if you're willing to make the investment."

Brian nodded as he reached for the check. "And if I don't take it, your experience proves that good opportunities do turn up."

"You're right about that," Meredith said. She grinned as she took the check out of his hand. "So this time, lunch is on me!"

Nancy Green, CAE, is executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children in Washington, DC. She will lead the Learning Lab "Define Success in the CEO Role Before You Take the Job" on August 22 at ASAE & The Center's Annual Meeting & Expo in Los Angeles. Email: [email protected]

Green Lights and Warning Signs

Watch for these signs that you should put on the brakes—or go full speed ahead for a great new CEO job.

The Search Committee

RED The search committee seems unusually large—more than 12 people. Especially problematic: when all of an organization's factions seem to feel their views must be represented.

RED The board's current and immediate past chair are represented on the committee, but not the future chair. Could it be that the president-elect—the one you'll be working with—is not a key part of the group?

GREEN The committee is a logical cross-section of stakeholder groups who need to buy in.

GREEN Committee members appear to share a clear, honest, warts-and-all vision of the organization's future.

The Search Firm

RED There is no search firm.

RED There is a search firm, but it's generally disorganized, asks superficial interview questions, and seems uncertain about the search committee's priorities.

GREEN The search firm has helped the board and/or search committee analyze the association's strategic direction, the issues it faces, and the characteristics of the ideal candidate.

GREEN The search firm has educated the board about the association profession and the role of the CEO.

GREEN The firm has coached the committee on fair compensation and industry benchmarks.

The Shadow of the Previous CEO

RED Everyone hints darkly about a history of turbulence.

RED The organization has had three or more CEOs in the past five to seven years.

RED The board speaks of the previous CEO's ability to walk on water.

RED Board members feel compelled to get involved in operations to avoid the mistakes they think a past CEO made.

GREEN The search committee is candid about why the last CEO left and learned sensible lessons from both good and not-so-great aspects of the experience.

GREEN Board agendas and planning documents indicate that the past CEO was treated as a partner.

The Elected Leaders

RED The board chair clearly considers the role the pinnacle of his or her career.

RED Board members are paid or provided with special perks, which means they may be serving for reasons other than their passion for the organization.

RED Being on the board seems to be all about ego.

RED Board agendas are heavy on reporting out.

GREEN Indications are that the CEO is regarded as a strategic contributor and thought partner. (Example: The CEO is cochair of the strategic planning committee.)

GREEN Board agendas and conversations indicate that the board tackles strategic questions in open-ended discussions and isn't prone to micromanagement.


RED The recruiter is unwilling or unable to get current financials for you and discourages you from looking at to check the organization's Form 990s.

RED The staff cannot produce operational metrics, such as an analysis of membership, participation, and organizational performance.

YELLOW Don't necessarily view a lack of clear data as a deal breaker—ambiguity may be an opportunity to put your own stamp on performance reports.

GREEN The recruiter or search committee provides you with the most up-to-date financials and takes it as a given that you'll read the 990s.

GREEN Either the staff already produces dashboard metrics or wants to start.


RED The association lacks a policy that clearly articulates the roles of the executive director, the board, and the

RED The organization has no clearly defined governance model, policies, and board job descriptions.

RED The treasurer is underused and that role seems misunderstood.

RED The finance committee is inactive.

YELLOW Ambiguity about structure and policies may be your opportunity to redefine and streamline, if the organization is willing to change.

GREEN Board and staff roles and board committee structures are clearly defined.

GREEN Board policies and job descriptions are up to date.

GREEN The finance committee and treasurer are knowledgeable contributors to the financial management and planning, as evidenced by policy documents and board job descriptions.

The Compensation Package

RED Your pay will be heavily based on performance-based bonuses, but you can't tell whether the goals are achievable.

RED You have to argue for CEO-level benefits, such as additional life insurance, deferred compensation, and business-class travel for overseas trips.

RED The committee seems stingy.

GREEN The committee offers a reasonable package of salary and benefits based on industry standards.

GREEN The negotiations don't go back and forth more than once.

GREEN The committee members clearly want you to feel fairly, maybe even generously, compensated for the work that lies ahead.