Pathways to CEO Excellence

a long wooden path in the forest October 19, 2016

ASAE Foundation research finds two popular paths to becoming an association CEO, each of which offers opportunities for obtaining the necessary knowledge and experience for executive success.

While there is no single route to becoming an association CEO, two popular pathways emerged from a recent study by the ASAE Foundation [PDF]. These pathways affect how CEOs categorize themselves professionally, and they provide two contrasting examples of how association CEOs gathered some of the information and experience needed to excel in their roles.

Professional Background

In the study, more than 400 association CEOs shared information about their professional paths. The research found that these executives had diverse backgrounds and were educated in a variety of fields, but few planned to be CEOs early on. Many fell into association work due to circumstance or after long careers in other sectors. Despite their varied histories, two distinct routes to their current roles emerged—routes that connected to the respondents' primary professional affiliation.

Seventy-four percent of respondents identified themselves as "association management professionals." These respondents averaged more years of experience in the association sector, were more likely to have held senior executive and C-level positions in associations before becoming CEO, and were also more likely to have had multiple CEO positions both within and outside of the association industry.

Know the association industry, know the industry served by the association you would like to work for, and understand the volunteer perspective.

CEOs who considered themselves "professionals in the field served by their association" were the second largest group (17 percent of respondents). These industry professionals spent most of their careers outside of the association sector, and they were much more likely to have held positions in other fields at all levels. Their current association CEO role was more likely to be their first and only CEO position.

When asked about activities that helped them get their first association CEO position, large percentages of both groups rated informal professional networks and advanced degrees as very or extremely important. However, the groups' opinions diverged when assessing the advantages of other professional activities. Self-identified association management professionals were much more likely to rate professional credentials and continuing education through associations as very or extremely important, while the industry professionals were more likely to rate board and association or nonprofit volunteer work as very or extremely important to getting their position.

74% Percentage of surveyed association CEOs who consider themselves association management professionals

Advice from Current CEOs

When providing advice for aspiring CEOs, survey participants in both groups stressed the value of obtaining a range of experiences. Respondents made three recommendations repeatedly: know the association industry, know the industry served by the association you would like to work for, and understand the volunteer perspective—especially the board member point of view.

Each path inherently provides solid grounding in one of these areas. Aspiring CEOs who built their careers in the association sector likely know the ins and outs of association work well, and industry professionals seeking an association CEO position in their own field of expertise will have no trouble understanding industry issues. Each group can take steps to bolster the areas where they need to build knowledge and experience. Industry professionals seeking an association CEO position would strengthen the experience they bring to the role with exposure to the association world through volunteering, and professionals from outside that industry should research industry trends and member needs to demonstrate their ability to serve that community.

The surveyed CEOs consistently emphasized the value of volunteer experience for effective association leadership. In particular, participants suggested that serving on a board of directors is invaluable for learning how boards function, how they resolve issues, and how they define success for an organization. No matter which path a professional takes to the association CEO role, hands-on board experience will help build an understanding of how to navigate a primary CEO function.

The ASAE Foundation's report provides more information on CEO pathways and advice from current association CEOs. The foundation's look at CEOs will continue in upcoming months with examinations of association CEO compensation and benefits.