America is home to thousands of associations, for teachers, doctors, public employees, race car drivers, book publishers, dog owners, and everything in between. These associations may have one employee or hundreds. After serving as executive director of a statewide association for 25 years, I believe that if you want to be the CEO or executive director of an association, there are keys you need to know. Let me break down my top five.
1. Understand the Money. It all begins with finance. Almost all associations have membership dues. Remember this is the starting point, other funds will follow. These other funds can be government grants, Unrelated Business Income, conference registrations, payments for service, and others. All revenues have a set of rules or regulations. Know them. Understand what you can do with the money and stick by the rules. Stay out of trouble.
2. Know the Purpose of the Association. You have to understand why the association exists, communicate that purpose to the members and act to carry out that purpose. If you focus on that purpose, it will be hard for you to be accused of leading the organization down the wrong path. And if you want to change the purpose or evolve the association as times change, be clear about that and get buy-in from the board of directors, first. As time moves on, the association may need to adjust its purpose, too.
3. Hire to Your Weaknesses. This is a basic for any job. If you are a “big picture” person who is bored by details, hire people who are great at the details. If your strength is not communications, get a person who excels at many types of communication. Get the people you need.
4. Remember You Are an Employee of the Board. Be humble; you work for the board of directors and some of them will have egos. I have seen many executive directors who get the relationship confused thinking the board is the employee. This is how to become unemployed quickly. Feel free to guide the board members to understand where you want to direct the association but remember that in the end, it is their decision. It is also true that part of the job is always sales. They must be brought along to where you want them to be. If you cannot sell them on a change, drop it and move on.
5. You Are the Face of the Association. More often than not, when people–both members and non-members–when they think of the association, will think of you. There is a point when the organization and you will become the same to most people. What you do will reflect on the organization. What happens to the association will reflect on you.