ISO consumate association professional … plumbers only need apply.

Suppose you were an association executive with a medical need. You have identified the leading doctors who specialize in the field. The decision is important. Your health is at stake. So you take very seriously the process of deciding which doctor is the best fit to work with you to diagnose your problem and prescribe treatment. You prepare a list of questions to ask each potential care giver about their qualifications.  

I guarantee those questions would not include asking these doctors whether they understood the difference between a 501(c)3 or 501(c)6 tax exempt organization. You wouldn’t exclude a doctor from consideration because he or she didn’t have the Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential. You’re looking for a medical professional, after all, not an association professional.

And yet how many times do associations demand that their chief staff executive hold a degree or even a license in the field the organization represents? This legacy attitude of the association as a guild, best run by a master of the craft, is generally an issue more for professional societies, than for trade associations, but the trades are not immune. I understand it, but it just doesn’t make sense.

A few months ago I had the privilege of moderating a seminar on a new book on association governance called Race for Relevance. One of the key issues the book raised was the need for a competency-based board, selected on the basis of who possesses the specific skills and expertise to make the association a successful enterprise for its members. But I ask you: how can an organization aspire to create a competency-based board when so many associations haven’t even grasped the concept of a competency-based selection of their chief staff executive?

I could provide a large collection of real-world position descriptions, painstakingly composed by CEO search committees, with much input from professional search agents, which provide page upon page of descriptions of the leadership, financial, managerial, organizational and governance competencies required to do the job. But then end with a requirement for a degree or even a license in the trade or profession represented.

I know a lot about the court reporting profession, about the wireless industry, about telephone messaging services, having successfuly served  those fields in a professional staff capacity at their respective associations. Any of my association peers could claim the same about their employment histories. Arguably, there are some aspects of the industry or profession that each of us represents that we actually know better than the average practitioner in the field. But none of us would ever claim to be remotely competent to step in and perform the professional roles or functions that our members perform with distinction every day. That’s not the job we were hired to do. That’s not what we are educated to do. That’s not what the association needs us to do.

Why then, does it seem so logical, so natural, and so “just the way things are” to start an executive search with a statement to the effect: “In search of consummate association professional; plumbers only need apply.”

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About Mark J. Golden, FASAE, CAE
Mark J. Golden, FASAE, CAE, is Executive Director of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior CEO roles include a nearly fourteen-year tenure as Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA), Vienna, Virginia. Before joining NCRA staff , he spent eight years with the Personal Communications Industry Association (PCIA), Washington, D.C. He also spent 12 years with the Association of Telemessaging Services International (ATSI), Alexandria, Virginia Long active in the association community, Mr. Golden is a past Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Center for Association Leadership, a past Vice Chairman of the ASAE Board of Directors, past Chair of the Center for Association Leadership’s Research Committee, and past member of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce's Association Committee of 100. He is the 2011 recipient of the American Society of Association Executive's Key Award, the highest honor ASAE bestows, to "honor the association CEO who demonstrates exceptional qualities of leadership in his or her own association, and displays a deep commitment to voluntary membership organizations as a whole.”

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