Experienced association executives, as well as less-experienced but no less committed people who are relatively new to the field, frequently talk about what it takes to be "successful" in association management. My first reaction to the question usually is that the success of an individual generally depends on the collective intelligence of the boards with which they work...the smarter the board, the more likely the association executive will be successful.
Obviously, it's not quite that simple, but there is, in my experience, a very direct correlation. Lest you think that I place all the responsibility, and lay all the blame, on boards, let me clarify by saying this:
Assuming an individual is relatively intelligent and can adapt to a diverse set of personal styles among board members, he or she is very likely to be at least moderately successful, provided he or she is dealing with board members who are intelligent enough to leave the bulk of their personal agendas and biases outside the board room. And, of course, provided he or she has sufficient personal integrity to focus on what is best for the association and its members. No matter how committed, though, someone of average or below average intelligence generally is not suited to association management; the likelihood of encountering board members who demand quick wits and intellectual capacity in their executives is simply too great.In case you wonder what the underlying message is here, let me be clear: to be successful in association management does not require dazzling brilliance. Success can be had by anyone who is intelligent, well-informed, well-read, and tolerant of different personality styles. Of course, those people who enjoy success must also make it his or her business to learn and fully absorb a vast amount on information and knowledge relating to association management. This information and knowledge ranges from leadership theory to antitrust law to financial management to risk management to strategic deployment of technology...and on and one. And, of course, the successful association executive must maneuver around or re-educate the occasional board member who is politically or morally corrupt.
Before going any further, it's important to understand what I'm referring to when I say "successful association executive." What I'm referring to is someone who is recognized as a leader by the board members and association members with whom he or she works and who helps lead the association to accomplish its objectives. Beyond that, a successful association executive helps boards articulate direction for the association and brings disparate groups of members and staff together so that they understand and embrace the "cause" for which the association works.
Thus far, when I have spoken of success, I have referred to success with a little "s." When we start talking about Success with a capital "S," we begin talking about characteristics that go beyond above average intelligence and integrity.
The world of the Successful Association Executive is experienced only by those association executives who possess personality and intellectual traits that place them in the rarified atmosphere of homo universalis. These are people who think deeply and who refuse to allow their ideas to be bound by commonly-held or conventional beliefs. They tend to acknowledge and value the contributions to mankind of all cultures, recoiling at what they perceive to be the rabid ignorance of provincialists, hyperpatriots, anarchists, and others who are nothing if not certain that their points of view are right.
What is the definition of "capital S" success? In my view, it is what makes an association stand out as a beacon or role model for others. And what "it" is is a recognized sense of moral authority and leadership that comes not from blind adherence to dogma but from careful assertions of principle based on a comprehensive understanding of facts.
An association that wields tremendous power without capturing a sense of true leadership is not successful. I could name plenty of examples, but that would do no good. Examples of organizations that do exemplify the exhibition of moral authority and leadership (though not without their own share of stumbles) include the American Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). While it's rare for the "average" association to have sufficient power in its mission to justify a sense of morality, it's not impossible. Associations that have contributed to standards that benefit the public at large in some way (e.g., standardized sizes of canned foods, standard sizes of tires, standard sizes and nomenclature for screws and nails, standard ways of planting crops, etc.) may also claim a sense of service that translates quite well into the larger "morality" that I speak of here. But the local real estate association also can be a moral leader by helping its members collaborate on ways to help first-time homebuyers achieve homeownership and the business association can become that leader by helping struggling businesses obtain the knowledge and skills necessary to survive and prosper.
The people who lead those associations (or who led them through periods of growth or significant influence) are among those who probably fall into the category of Successful Association Executives. Successful Association Executives are much more than technicians who know the nuts and bolts of operating the small businesses they run (for that's what most associations are).
Instead, they are people who share a vision with the volunteer leaders of the organization. They are people who challenge common wisdom, ask tough questions, set aggressive and challenging goals, and embrace disparate factions within and without the association.
They are the Muslims and Christians and Jews who would read books by Richard Dawkins; the atheists who would read 90 Minutes in Heaven; the liberals who would listen intently to Rush Limbaugh's radio programs; or the hard-core right-wingers who would read Greg Palast's Armed Madhouse.
Successful Association Executives tend to be "middle-of-the-roaders" in many facets of their lives because they can understand and appreciate so many points of view. They recognize the seeds of truth that often are hidden in the emotions that inform the opinions on all sides of particularly contentious issues. For that reason, among others, they tend to be excellent arbiters in difficult circumstances.
So, here we are at the end of this diatribe and I wonder: does the title make sense now?