Where to Find Your Next CEO

By: Jacqui Cook

If your CEO resigned tomorrow, do you know who would take over? Whether your association already has someone in mind or needs to find a replacement quickly, there is a smarter way to conduct a search. Learn how—and where—to find your next CEO. (Titled "Seeking a CEO" in the print edition.)

By the time John J. Prast, LLIF, CAE, stepped down after 20 years as CEO of the Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT), the search for his successor was complete. The organization had a plan in place for four years, knowing that when the time came, Stephen P. Stahr, IOM, CAE, would move from the chief operating officer position to become CEO. The transition was seamless.

"The executive committee wanted a succession plan as John neared retirement age," says Stahr, who took over on September 1. "John had several candidates in mind, and we all went through a rigorous process of testing and interviewing and taking on challenging assignments. He also brought in consultants to assess the data on who would be the choice for the number-two position. Soon after I began working in that position, John began giving me more and more responsibilities, especially as it got closer to his departure."

Is your association prepared to replace its CEO? If not, there's no need to worry. It's just a matter of finding the right fit.

Starting the Search

The recruiting firm JDG Associates, Ltd., has conducted more than 150 CEO searches in 30 cities during the past 20 years. While each organization is different, there are some common approaches to finding a new CEO when no succession plan is in place, says Paul Belford, principal of the firm and author of Planning Your Career in Association Management.

The first step is for the board to determine whether the search process will be conducted internally or with some degree of help from a search firm. Next, the board must put together the search committee, which typically includes representatives from the executive committee and sometimes members of the senior staff. If the association is using a search firm, the committee becomes the liaison between the organization and the firm. There also may be discussion at this point of whether to appoint an interim CEO.

Before starting the search, everyone involved must agree that they have no preconceived ideas about who the organization should get for the job, Belford says. If there is a viable internal candidate, that person will set the bar for all candidates simply because she is a known quantity. But that person must still be evaluated in the same way as other candidates, especially if the departing CEO did not provide opportunities for the internal candidate to show leadership skills. This also ensures that the second step—developing a comprehensive profile of the organization and its needs—can proceed without bias toward any one candidate.

"The profile can clearly direct where the search should go," Belford says. "We learn a lot during the search phase, so we always are very comfortable and ready to send a resume forward to the search committee on the basis of what we learned. The profile will generally point to 'This is the person we want.'"

Although plenty of skilled leaders have been laid off from their jobs in the government or the private sector, Belford says his firm tends to gravitate toward association professionals to fill association CEO positions. This decreases the learning curve for the new CEO because he already knows how an association functions and, perhaps even more important, knows whether the pace would be a good fit.

Robert A. Hall, M.Ed., CAE, executive director of the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons and author of the 2007 white paper "Where Should Your Exec Come From?," has been an association executive for almost 30 years and cringes at the idea of associations going outside the nonprofit sector for leaders.

"I've had a great record of success with all my associations, but if you ran an airline and I sent in a resume to be a pilot, you'd laugh and say, 'You're very competent, but I'm not going to put you behind the controls of a 767.' People don't realize there's a body of knowledge related to association management that's different from the for-profit world," he says.

For example, Hall says private-sector companies are focused on one bottom line: profit. Associations have multiple bottom lines, such as publishing research in a journal, providing an educational annual meeting, offering certification, and advocating for the profession before government bodies.

"Segments of the staff and membership each think those are the most important things an association does, and they don't care if it makes money or not," Hall says. "That's hard for a for-profit guy to understand."

Mary Ann Tuft, president of the search firm Tuft & Associates, recommends including a few candidates from outside of associations so the search committee has a chance to at least interview them and explore the idea of hiring a nonassociation CEO. This can be especially helpful for trade associations, which typically have stronger lobbying and international components than professional societies.

"Some of these people from the outside may have had experience in different roles that translate well to associations—communications, fiscal management, technology savvy, international experience," she says. "It comes down to what the organization's priorities are and who best meets them."

The Culture Question

A major part of the selection process is determining whether the candidate who seems perfect on paper will be the right fit for the culture of the association. This can be a tricky determination, because even a junior staff member usually knows the right buzzwords in association management. But what does that language tell a prospective candidate about the organization and her ability to fit in? And what does it tell the association if the candidate describes herself with those words?

Not much, says Pamela Kaul, president of Association Strategies, Inc. She says there are better ways to get a handle on the culture the candidate is coming from and for the candidate to see where he would be going.

"I would start by doing research on the [candidate's association] members," she says. "What do they do? What is their work style? Where are they in the pecking order of their own industry? What is their environment—do they function in a rapidly changing environment with a good measure of uncertainty? Are they aggressively working to defeat or support a public policy agenda? Are they a philanthropic organization or community-based association? You can tell a good bit by the members themselves and the environment they operate in."

Once you get a sense of the members and the overall tone of the candidate's association, talk to current and former members and staff to fill in the gaps. The picture may not be 100 percent complete, but it will go a long way toward creating a snapshot of the association where the candidate is currently employed.

Kimberly A. Hoarle, MBA, CAE, says cultural fit was a primary reason she was offered and then accepted the position of executive director of the American Society for Healthcare Risk Management. Hoarle was director of member service for the American Academy of Dermatology when she answered ASHRM's online ad seeking a CEO, so she went into the process knowing little about the organization or the staff.

She met with ASHRM's board president, president-elect, and the management team members who would be reporting to her. Because ASHRM is affiliated with the American Hospital Association, she also met with AHA senior staff and one of the executive directors of another AHA affiliate.

"I think the culture was one of the most important things I looked at," Hoarle says. "It was important to make sure I was able to fit in and support the mission of the organization. It would be really hard to come in and change the culture or try to come in and be something you are not. You have to make sure it's a good fit for you and for the organization."

These meetings can be key to getting at the less obvious cultural idiosyncrasies of an association, such as the value of flexibility in the workplace, the presence (or lack) of staff camaraderie, and even what kind of dress is appropriate. When Hall was a finalist for the executive director position at the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, he nearly lost out because the other finalist was better dressed.

"Cosmetic dentistry is about appearances, and they would say appearance is a big thing in their culture," Hall says. But he cautions that cultural fit should not eclipse the candidate's ability to be a leader and perform the most important CEO functions.

"It still comes down to a record of success," he says. "I've come on after a number of executives who shouldn't have been hired, and I had to be the cleanup person. Some present well on paper, dress well and look the part, but they can't actually do the job."

Big (and Comfortable) Shoes to Fill

When Prast stepped down from the helm at MDRT, the organization's 70-plus employees had the advantage of knowing his successor and the succession plan well. Stahr has been on staff for 21 years, slightly longer than Prast was CEO, and his management style was no surprise because it had been cultivated through the years by his mentor. Although Prast was well liked and respected by the staff, the change has gone smoothly.

For other associations, bringing in someone new can cause culture shock both inside and outside the office, even if that person has been vetted by the most skilled search firm and search committee. This can be especially hard if the departing CEO was well liked by staff.

Tuft says the first step in overcoming this challenge is for board members to see the departure as an opportunity, no matter how much they liked and respected the former CEO. They should decide what they liked about the former leader and what they would like to change. Once a candidate has been chosen, the message to the leadership and staff must be that this person was the best candidate for the position and that they must ensure he or she feels welcome and is given the tools to succeed.

"What we tell everyone involved is when a new person comes in, everyone has to help make that person successful," she says. "Someone will always say, 'When so-and-so was here, we did it this way.' You have to prepare the candidate and all the people involved for that kind of situation."

In time, the staff and membership will determine for themselves whether the CEO is someone they can work for and with. If the association has done its due diligence and selected the best candidate, there shouldn't be more than a few minor bumps.

"The common thing in finding a new leader is that it be a person who has a high degree of confidence that they know how this particular association should work," Belford says. "They don't want to control it. They just know how it should work, and they are comfortable with all parts of the organization and how they interface and relate in meeting members' needs.

"This is leadership in an association context, and it's much more than just good management. "

Jacqui Cook is a freelance writer in the Chicago area. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: So You Want to Be a CEO?

Association professionals who have their eye on the corner office can start taking steps to get there long before they formally seek a position. Here are some suggestions from search experts and CEOs.

Show up and speak up. Tell your supervisor you want to grow your leadership skills and ask for help in doing that. Volunteer to make a presentation to the board or be a subject-matter expert. Be the go-to person for your current CEO. Get to the office before the boss and go home after she leaves. CEOs work hard, so you should, too.

See the other side. Take a board position in your community or with a cause you support. See what it's like to be on that side of the table, and think about what you would do as CEO to serve your volunteers.

Find a mentor. Identify someone in your organization or outside of it who can share his story of successfully rising to an executive role. Seek his advice about when you're ready to become a CEO and which opportunities might be best for you.

Invest in yourself. Educate yourself any way you can, whether or not your employer pays for it. Get an MBA or another master's degree. Get your Certified Association Executive credential and attend the U.S. Chamber Institute for Organization Management. Read association management material any chance you get. If you don't show you want to invest money and time into yourself, why should an employer invest in you?