Navigating to the CEO Spot – for Association Executives

“The grass is always greener on the other side of the septic tank!” –is how Denise Fandel, Executive Director of the Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer started the conversation! A sentiment shared by several other people that I interviewed about the journey to the #1 spot – said only half jokingly because, like becoming a parent, most said: “If I had known what I was getting into, maybe I wouldn’t have been so eager!! AND I wouldn’t give up the experience for anything in the world!”

Denise offered a few of the lessons she learned:

1. The buck stops here. I am the end of the line and I have to make some tough decisions. And it isn’t about me – it’s about the best decisions for the organization.

2. Personalities have to stay out of it! I have to deal with the big issues and not let the personalities get in the way!

3. I am not going to make everyone happy – the best I can aspire to is being open and honest so people will trust and respect me. This is not the same as being liked and being popular!

The pathway – as many ways as there are for using Flip cameras, that is how many ways there are of getting to the CEO spot! Denise took the route of being a professional in the industry, getting involved as a board member and then moving into the role of Executive Director when it was created for the new entity. This path was a double edged sword – on one hand she understood the passion behind the issues; and that may have narrowed her vision in some instances.

Advice to those aspiring to the CEO role –

  • Consistently work on open and honest communication on issues in your organization. This starts with communication with the CEO about growing and developing yourself as a CEO. Get his or her support to develop in areas that are important for the next role you want to take on.
  • Lead the staff by example and not words. This is what builds respect and trust that are so important.
  • Take the time to engage with all of the different functional departments to see what the biggest issues are, and key in on a couple of things that are core to what the board views as being important. Understand the issues from all function perspectives.
  • In the end, the proficiencies that are most important are:
    • Communication- clear speaking and listening;
    • The mastery of management and finance principles;
    • Listening for where the passions are – putting the right people in the right place; and
    • Leadership – getting people to want to do things because it is the right thing to do.
    • Look at the competency outline for the CAE exam, self-assess where you are strong and where you have room to grow. Then take on responsibilities outside your comfort zone to build new competencies.

And who gives you counsel?

You have to talk with someone that doesn’t have a dog in the hunt, someone to give you unbiased feedback about how you are thinking, both affirming your thinking and finding flaws in your viewpoint. This can’t be a board member or staff. It must be a trusted colleague, friend, or coach, and they don’t even have to be in your sphere of business. The important thing is that they don’t have anything to lose or gain from your decisions.

Find two to three people that you can share with like executives of organizations in like fields. I sat down with someone that had been in the field of association management and asked him what I needed to know and what I needed to do. ASAE as a resource is great for creating that network!

A word from the wise for the new CEO –

You can’t go in and start making changes. You have to find out what is working.

And as the CEO create an “owner’s manual” – this is how I work and how I like to interact with problems. An owner’s manual outlines what others can expect for us to work together. This lays the groundwork for a productive and open relationships with key staff members and board members alike – relationships which can last for decades!


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