Why Every Association Professional Doesn't Aspire to Be a CEO

Grady_Don't want to be CEO October 19, 2021 By: Jenifer L. Grady, CAE

Just because you don’t see yourself as an executive director one day doesn’t mean that you still can’t be an extremely effective and successful association professional. Several association pros share what they like about non-CEO roles and how they continue to grow professionally.

Becoming an association CEO is considered the pinnacle, the fulcrum of professional achievement. And many view “up” as optimal, while “down” is seen as failure. But let’s face it, there are more people who aren’t chief executives than there are associations because typically there is room for only one person at the top.

In a 2014 interview with The Washington Post, Richard Hytner, former CEO of the global advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi, recalled the moment he said, “I just never want to be a chief executive ever again. It’s horrendous,” out loud in an office hallway. After the HR director admonished him for saying that in public, Hytner realized: “There is still an embedded assumption that if you choose to be a No. 2, there’s something wrong with you. You lack ambition. You’ve lost your talent…, you’ve given up.”

But what if you’re an association professional who doesn’t aspire to be a CEO?

Let me share some of my story: I was an executive director, albeit for an association of one, for seven years. For 8 years prior, I directed a startup under the umbrella of a huge association. After being coached and soul-searching, I read a profile about Rita Chen, in ASAE’s conference newspaper, which defined my desire to become a chief operating officer and to serve with a strong CEO who would mentor me.

I wondered if others had boldly determined that they don’t want to be a CEO yet, again, or ever. To dig in, I posed that question and several others to my colleagues in ASAE’s Diversity Executive Leadership Program (DELP), which was created to increase the number of “under-represented groups in the association community with support, access, and opportunities for leadership.” The crucial word here is “leadership.”

I Don’t Want to Be CEO Yet

There are several reasons for not wanting to be a CEO yet. Danielle Duran Baron, CAE, staff vice president of marketing and communications at the School Nutrition Association, said it can be a matter of finding the right fit. She likes working in an association that has a budget of at least $10 million.

Roberto Quinones, founder of the DC Hispanic Employee Network, agreed, having found that smaller organizations seem to have less resources to diffuse workplace tensions.

Beyond the inevitable personality clashes, organizational culture is another factor to be considered when deciding on a CEO role. Anne Ornelas, senior operations manager at CASSS—Sharing Scientific Solutions, pays attention to the board.

“Based on my experience and on what close friends have shared, many times the board lacks understanding of basic governance and refuses to learn, which makes the ED job very difficult,” Ornelas said.

The industry served by the association dictates some of the culture. For example, I went from helping individual librarians advocate for themselves, to brokering product pricing for library resources, to overseeing staff in one of the largest REALTOR associations in Tennessee, and the pace and programming have been very different in each.

I Don’t Want to Be CEO Again

In the again category are those who had a traumatic experience as an executive director. It may have been a board that was in the weeds or one that was hands-off. It may have been realizing that reporting to a board was too stressful.

I was lonely, not just because I was a small staffer, but also because I found the CEO role to be inherently isolating. Depending on an organization’s size and roles, there may be no confidante to share the victories or the struggles.

As a team member, Ornelas feels she can “contribute more and be seen.” Quinones sees that as well, saying there are more opportunities to step outside of your “hired” role when you’re not a CEO.

Not being a CEO led to an aha moment for Baron. “I never realized how much of a change agent I really was and how sometimes being in the CEO seat might not be the best place to go for these bold initiatives, depending on the organization and their appetite for real change,” she said.

Continuous Growth Is Still Required

However, there is a need to grow regardless of whether one intends to “move up.” Tonya Bennett-McCray, director of accounting at SEIU, recommends that you conquer your stated responsibilities and manager’s expectations before you start operating at another level. “Be consistent with how you deal with people and situations so you become known for objective and trusted reasoning,” she said. Having a mentor or a group of peers and advisors you can turn to is also a good strategy.

Of course, there are frustrations when you are the No. 2, No. 3, or No. 10 at an association. For instance, several of my colleagues saw changes they knew would benefit the association, but they did not have the authority required to make them. But all in all, they are energized by the changes they can make.

And they also know they are leaders. Norma Galinda Castrejon, senior consultant, technology Management, at DelCor Technology Solutions, defined leadership—no matter if you’re CEO or not—as “the ability to have others willingly follow you.”

Since there is only one CEO per association, it is up to those of us who are intentionally happy where we are to keep operations flowing smoothly, to manifest the vision of the CEO and board, and to be reminders of the value of inclusivity. Of course, there may come a time when the perfect opportunity pops up and we say “yes” to the CEO role. Until then, we will keep living our dreams from where we are, knowing that there’s nothing wrong with us. 

Jenifer L. Grady, CAE

Jenifer L. Grady, MSLS, MBA, CAE, is chief operating officer at Greater Nashville REALTORS and an ASAE Diversity Executive Leadership Program scholar.