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Chief Executive Officer & Board of Directors

Association CEOs: Leading through change

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Association CEOs

According to the Center for Association Leadership, an association is defined as “a group of people banded together for a purpose.” The United States is home to more than 66,000 such organizations, including the professional membership societies and trade organizations that serve a variety of critical needs, from research to advocacy. Along with the private sector, these associations operate in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment—and yet performance expectations are higher than ever. As a result, more than two-thirds of association CEOs have seen their role and responsibilities shift in the past three years.

In recognition of this change and uncertainty, Heidrick & Struggles conducted a survey of more than 500 association CEOs to learn how they approach their evolving role. Where are they now focusing the most time and energy? What obstacles do they face? Who do they turn to? And how do they find their way through tough decisions? The survey results offer first-of-its-kind insights into the changing role of associations and their leadership.

The results also paint a picture of what the tensions are—and what they aren't. No longer are association CEOs simply administrators charged with keeping the organization solvent and on track; today, they must be visionaries, forward thinkers, innovators. When asked about their top focus areas, more than half of association CEOs name “mission and organizational vision” (54%), noting it has grown more difficult to define and communicate the organization's purpose (Figure 1).

 Association CEO survey exhibit

Relatedly, a close second area of focus is “membership outreach and retention” (52%). Whereas associations used to be driving forces in a fairly uncluttered landscape, today the cacophony of voices offering specialized information, services, and advocacy is overwhelming.

Our connected world means that current and potential members of associations are bombarded with offers, and they can often obtain the information they are seeking from readily available public sources. Therefore associations must offer value-added member services and communicate in a differentiated manner.

The full report offers rich qualitative and quantitative insights from the hundreds of association CEOs surveyed, from the leadership characteristics they deem most important (honesty and ethics) to the trait that is most challenging (fundraising ability) to the people they turn to when making a tough decision (the board and senior staff, among others).

What becomes evident in this report is that, as association CEOs lead their organizations further into a world of change, their ability to operate confidently in the face of uncertainty will become ever more important. To hone this ability they read constantly. They keep a finger on the pulse of the board, of the industry, of Washington, and of their members through open, frequent communication and networking. They carefully choose who to trust. And regardless of what comes their way, they stay true to and continue to believe in their core values and the primary mission of the association.

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About the authors

Julian Ha (jha@heidrick.com), Partner, Heidrick & Struggles, Washington, DC

Bill Hudson (bhudson@heidrick.com), Partner, Heidrick & Struggles, Washington, DC

David Rehr (drehr@gmu.edu), Senior Associate Dean and Professor, George Mason University School of Law

This excerpt is drawn from Association CEOs: Leading through Change. For more, download the full report using the download button above.

Related Thinking

Redefining leadership at associations: In 2015, Heidrick & Struggles convened a panel of established trade and professional association executives who explored leadership challenges. Read the article and download the report.

The CEO Report: Developed in conjunction with the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, The CEO Report is a global study of more than 150 CEOs that explores the challenges of leading in a rapidly changing business environment, and highlights the competencies required to succeed. Download the report.


Julian Ha Partner +1 202 3314900
Bill Hudson Partner +1 202 3314900

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