Recently I was asked to participate in a national study conducted by the highly regarded executive recruiting firm, Heidrick & Struggles. The survey of over 500 association leaders highlighted several known issues leaders face but also exposed the changing role of the CEO. Without going into too much detail, I would like to highlight a few points from the survey report.
The most striking feedback that caught my attention is that a majority of respondents (54%) feel “A focus on mission and organization vision” is their area of greatest focus. Above Membership Retention and Outreach (52%) and Financial Oversight (42%). This is one of the first points that I have mentioned for years working with other CEOs and executives. Start with a vision and build the organization to support that vision. It used to be that financial performance was the first concern. Even during my tenure at CUNA, I saw this shift. We were able to create an organization with a mission strong enough to support financial and membership goals.
During a recent physical, my doctor practically scoffed at my regimen of walking 3-5 miles every day. He explained that since I had been doing this routine for so long it had become my “new normal” and thus I needed to incorporate additional exercises to achieve additional benefits. In many ways, I believe that this is what is happening with association CEOs.
Financial Oversight and Membership Retention and Outreach are becoming the “new normal” and the incorporation of a visionary, mission driven, leader is the expectation. As the survey report states, “Association CEOs are an evolving breed. They must adapt to an increasingly combative political backdrop while contending with shrinking membership, competition for resources, and tough decisions. They must serve as the organization’s visionary, not just its operational manager.”
One additional point that is alluded to in the report and that is critical in the application of its findings is the role of executives and managers in supporting a mission and vision. The only way that the expectation of a visionary CEO can be fulfilled is if the team supporting Membership, Financial Oversight, Advocacy, and other operational functions is autonomous and reliable. As a CEO, getting the most out of ourselves and those around us is often our primary focus each day. I have been fortunate to have excellent advisors, both internal and external throughout my career, and have been able to pass along those services to others in more recent years.
As part of the credit union movement, we don’t have to look far to find our mission. It is the visionaries that are harder to find. Looking beyond the daily duties on our desks may seem frivolous but in fact it makes a leader appear fearless. Identifying a need, finding a unique solution, and having the faith in your idea to bring it to fruition is courageous. Follow your vision!