I had a colleague contact me recently asking about the pros and cons of having an association CEO be a member of the profession represented by the association. I advised caution. Actually four cautions:
Caution #1: When the CEO of an association is an expert in the same field as the members, it can lead to conflict when the CEO and the Board (or membership) have conflicting visons about what’s best for the field. When the CEO moves beyond sharing their reasoning with the Board as part of assisting them to make an informed decision, and instead imposes their own view either overtly or covertly with or without discussion it’s only a matter of time before a separation occurs.
Caution #2: If the CEO does not possess experience with the dynamics of an association – and does not have a deputy with that expertise – the organization is at risk of being mismanaged or of inadvertent failure to execute something essential to the operation of a voluntary membership or cause related nonprofit.
Caution #3: related it #2, an industry expert who tries it run an association with a volunteer workforce like they ran a for profit business with only an employed workforce will usually find themselves facing a serious cultural misalignment.
Caution #4: An association exec with multiple experiences is usually better able to learn the dynamics of an industry or profession (not the technical competencies or skill sets) of industry members than an industry expert is able it learn the legal, technical, financial and political dimensions of effectively operating an association.
Of course, there are always exceptions to these generalized observations. And, conversely there are some advantages for an industry exec in the CEO spot if advocacy or technical education is the primary business line of the organization. But those advantages are usually only realized if the organization has other staff with the specialized knowledge of an association professional.