Danielle Duran Baron, CAE
Danielle Duran Baron, CAE, is staff vice president of marketing and communications at the School Nutrition Association and vice chair of ASAE’s Government Relations and Advocacy Professionals Advisory Council.
Being an association CEO is a dream job—a chance to build a culture of trust and innovation, work with a visionary board, and transform an organization. Here are four ways to prepare yourself to succeed in a leadership role.
At ASAE’s Virtual Annual Meeting & Exposition in August, I was joined by three other executives who, like me, have held the top job in various organizations. During our session, we shared lessons we’ve learned and wisdom we’ve gained throughout our careers. For any association professional aspiring to the c-suite, these four lessons in particular can serve as preparation for a leadership role and offer guideposts when you get there.
No matter how much you prepare for this role, things will unfold differently, sometimes beyond your control. Be prepared to listen—to what is said and to what is not said—learn and communicate. Be sure to give yourself some grace as you navigate this challenge.
“It’s going to be a lot of work, so you will need to scale back a lot of the expectations you have for everything you are going to accomplish,” said Tamela Blalock, vice president of cooperative relations at NCBA-CLUSA.
“Don’t ever promise that you won’t make any changes in the first few months or year. That promise will surely be broken as times may call for you to make swift and important decisions,” said Pamela Green, executive coach and consultant at Pamela J Green Solutions.
No matter how much you prepare for this role, things will unfold differently, sometimes beyond your control.
The best way to ensure success is to be prepared. It is not enough to do your homework before taking on the big job. Go beyond and invest time in your research, making sure that you have all the qualitative and quantitative data you need.
When looking at organizations, I make sure to tap into my network to find out what the 990 forms and websites like Glassdoor or Indeed won’t tell me. You can go on LinkedIn, look for former and current staff, board members, volunteers, or anyone who might have had experience with the organization. What does their profile reveal about them?
Former board members can be a good source of institutional memory and strategic intelligence. Looking back, I was so eager to take on the challenge of my first executive director role that I might have dismissed a few red flags too quickly. Examining each interaction with anyone from the organization might seem like overkill, but it will allow you to put the pieces of the puzzle together and spot anything that might be missing.
“I approach this as I would any long-term relationship,” Blalock said. “I have some standards: How does the organization present itself? Do they have reserves or a financial plan? What’s their philosophy in life? Do they have healthy governance? What is their board composition? Is the board future-focused, or do they like to get in the weeds? Do they want to be a partner or rule over you?”
Team dynamics, climate, and culture are some of the most important signs to look for, according to Mariama Boney, interim executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth and CEO of Achieve More, LLC. “How do they refer to one another? How are they talking among themselves? Is there gossip? Is there accountability? You will be doing a lot of talking but don’t forget to do a lot of listening in these situations when the stakes are high,” Boney said.
As the CEO, you cannot do it alone, so it is not only about your development but your board’s development, too. “Sometimes boards say they want something and when they get someone who is a driver, a decision-maker, they don’t know what to do with them. As a new CEO, as soon as you walk through that door, the culture is going to shift,” cautioned Green. For Blalock education is key. “Go beyond written materials and add educational sessions at every board meeting. Make sure they understand governance and financials, but at the same time allow for flexibility and include topics that are important for the organization, such as conflict resolution, diversity and inclusion, or innovation,” she said.
While there are no shortcuts or magic tricks guaranteeing that you will land a perfect CEO role, doing your due diligence, building a solid foundation and a partnership with your board, investing in education and communication, and understanding the dynamics of the board will likely lead to your success. More importantly, taking these steps will contribute to your job satisfaction and career longevity.