Hiring From Outside the Association World

By: Nancy Mann Jackson

Associations looking for the strongest talent the market has to offer are extending their search to distant horizons, hiring senior staff with an industry or for-profit background instead of bringing in seasoned association professionals. Learn the pluses and minuses of doing so—and what makes for an easier transition if you bring an association newcomer on board. (Titled "Get An Outside Perspective" in the print edition.)

For 30 years, Lynne Thomas Gordon worked in the health information management industry, most recently as a registered health information administrator. But last September, she was looking to change things up: She left the hospital setting and become CEO of the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA).

It was a big step, but as it turned out, her transition to the association world was smooth. Because she started in the industry at entry level and then moved to administrative roles in healthcare systems, Gordon "can easily relate to what our members are experiencing, as I've been there myself," she says. "I'm also in a better position to understand their goals and challenges. My experience outside AHIMA gives me a more global perspective of health information management professionals and how we as an industry can instill quality procedures and policies that lead to better patient care. This outside experience allows me to bring new ideas to the table."

AHIMA is not the only association bringing in new staff from outside the nonprofit world. During the economic downturn of the past few years, associations "looked internally at their staff structures to make sure they had the right talent in place," says Christie Tarantino, CEO of the Association Forum of Chicagoland. "That has created opportunities for people already working in associations, as well as those outside."

But working for an association is different from working in the corporate world, so association newbies must be prepared. "You have to transition from being in an industry to reporting to a board of directors," Tarantino says, noting that boards are often made up of the new hire's former industry peers. "It's very different going from being a peer to being a staff person."

Although transitioning to an association has its challenges, an outsider's experience in the for-profit world can bring a new perspective to association management.

Benefits and Challenges

Jack Rives, who joined the American Bar Association (ABA) as executive director in 2010 after serving in the legal branch of the U.S. Air Force for 33 years, acknowledges that an outside hire will not have developed association management skills from within or understand an organization's unwritten rules at first. But associations "benefit from a fresh, unbiased perspective," Rives says. And outside hires "can apply the skills they learned outside the association environment—the skills that led to their selection for the position."

For Rives, the greatest challenge was "the sheer complexity of the American Bar Association," he says. "We have about 400,000 members, almost 1,000 on staff, and more than 3,500 distinct entities. ABA's structure and organization present significant challenges." His transition was eased by the leadership and management skills he learned in the military. "I was pleased to see how those abilities transferred seamlessly to the association world," he says.

In many cases, the benefits of hiring an outsider depend on the role being filled, says Andrea Hannen of the Association Expert, which provides strategic insight, management consulting, and board training to membership-driven organizations.

"If the executive is being hired as a CIO or to work in a senior government relations role, the specialized expertise he or she has will be immediately transferable to the association, especially if he or she has led projects or initiatives that are similar to what the association requires," Hannen says. "At the executive director level, however, there may be a greater need for the individual to have extensive association-based experience. The board dynamics are very different, and the way the organization's progress needs to be evaluated is different as well."

As a longtime member of AHIMA, Gordon was familiar with the association and its programs. But after 30 years working for nonprofit hospitals, her new job still presented challenges.

"AHIMA has a wealth of products, including books that cover all aspects of health information management, online education courses, and audio seminars," she says. "Getting familiar with all we have to offer and then learning the difference between how products are sold at an association versus a nonprofit hospital has been a challenging but informative experience."

Hannen says challenges can also arise when boards hire a CEO from outside the association world because they're looking for extensive experience in the sector or proven commitment to the cause. Examples include a sports association that hires a former champion or an industry organization that hires the former owner of a company that is well known in that industry.

"There are significant risks to this approach," Hannen says. "An individual with an extensive background in the industry or sector the organization represents may have a lot of preconceived notions and personal biases about where the industry or sector needs to go, rather than really tuning in to stakeholder needs and concerns. … If the person is coming from the corporate world, he or she may not fully appreciate that his or her success is likely to be measured by things in addition to revenue growth and financial performance. Passion for and knowledge of the industry or cause is no substitute for relevant experience in the association sector."

The Right Hiring Decision

So given the pros and cons, should you hire from within the association community or look beyond? "The key, of course, is to find the right person," Rives says. "No one has everything in his or her background; no one has the perfect skill set for the job. That right person can come from a great range of backgrounds."

If you're bringing in a new hire who lacks association experience, volunteer leaders and staff members must expect a learning curve, Rives adds. As they prepare to brief their new colleague, encourage current staffers to use the preparations as an opportunity to assess their own effectiveness and to recommend potential areas for change and improvement.

Keep in mind that if your association is considering a senior executive from outside the association industry, "the executive's success in his or her new role is going to be influenced by the degree to which he or she acknowledges the differences between the corporate world and the association world," Hannen says. That may mean discussing the differences during the interview process and gauging whether the new executive will be receptive to new ideas and willing to learn how and why the two sectors differ, "rather than automatically assuming that bringing the association's operations closer and closer to a corporate operational model is the only way to go," she says. "Enrolling in courses about not-for-profit leadership and administration … would be good indicators that the executive is truly committed to making the transition from the corporate world to the association world."

A Smoother Transition

If your organization does hire an association outsider, be committed to helping him or her get acclimated. "An executive who is given the gift of time and support during the transition period, rather than constantly being pressured to get up to speed, is likely to become a stronger contributor and make fewer serious mistakes early on," Hannen says.

The board chair can set the stage for a positive and supportive relationship with a new executive director or CEO by recognizing that the person will need about three months before he or she will be knowledgeable enough about the organization's business, staff, and stakeholders to spearhead major initiatives, Hannen says. During this period, the board chair's focus should be on ensuring that the new hire has the space and time needed to observe what's happening at various levels of the organization, gather informal feedback from fellow staff and stakeholders, and document his or her initial impressions and ideas. Casual weekly meetings or calls during this period between a few board members and the new executive can be a good way to let the new hire share insights and concerns and test assumptions in a safe, confidential environment.

For Gordon, ongoing conversations with board members and staff leaders have been critical. "Before continuing to move the association forward, it was essential for me to know where we've been as an association," she says. "We have a great board of directors, and they have helped guide me through the history of the association and the board cycle. I highly recommend [other new hires] take the time to sit down and talk with your staff and association leaders. They hold the keys to your association's history and culture and can help you identify any changes and goals that need to be made to help your association continue to thrive."

Hannen says staff can help ease the transition for these new executives by applying the golden rule. "Put yourself in the new executive's shoes. Imagine the kind of official information and data the new executive might need to see and have it organized and ready for his or her review on day one," she says. That data may include annual reports, internal division reports, media releases from the past 24 months, biographies of board members, current resumes of direct reports, and member satisfaction surveys.

"Focus on documented facts, rather than burdening the new executive with your opinions and impressions, or taking the opportunity to press a specific agenda," Hannen says. "If one of the reasons the individual was hired was to give the organization a fresh start in a particular area, it's important to take a step back and not replicate the dynamics that existed prior to the person coming on board. All organizational challenges are shared challenges, and everyone has to take ownership of addressing them."

And while bringing in an outsider can be challenging at times, it can also allow staff to look at things in a different way, which often translates into higher member satisfaction.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer based in Huntsville, Alabama.

Sidear: 4 Tips to Becoming an Association Insider

If you're hired as an outsider at an association, do your best to become an insider quickly. These tips from David Patt, CAE, president of Association Executive Management, can help you get there.

1. Commit to continuous learning. Enroll in Associations 101 or a similar course offered by ASAE or one of its allied associations. Study basic association structure and purpose so that you thoroughly understand that an association is not a private business.

2. Get involved in industry associations. Join ASAE and your local society of association executives, and regularly attend their meetings and educational sessions. Get to know people who are doing your job at other associations and learn from them. Lynne Thomas Gordon, CEO of the American Health Information Management Association, says she's built a "kitchen cabinet" of advisors through networking with other association executives.

3. Stay updated. Read blogs, news, and tweets posted by association professionals in a variety of functional areas to gain a better understanding of the people who work every day in the association industry.

4. Value your staff. "Listen to the association staff and respect their expertise," Patt says. "Everybody who reports to the CEO should know more about their area of responsibility than does the CEO, even if the CEO is an association professional. The job of the CEO is not to be an expert at everything but to know how to meld everybody else's expertise into successful association operations."

Nancy Mann Jackson

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer based in Huntsville, Alabama.