The life of an association CEO has more than its fair share of struggles, challenges and the occasional glorious success. Asked recently about a “not expecting it” experience in my career, it took a millisecond to remember this one. True story. Many, many years back, the first day of my new CEO position began at the Association’s Annual Convention. Following a full day of speeches, introductions and business activities, a welcome dinner with the entire Board was held that evening. After more than a few drinks, the Chairman of the Board looked over at me and said, “You know I preferred the other guy (meaning the other CEO candidate). I guess we’ll see how it works out.” Battle stations. Welcome to CEO life.
Groucho Marx was said to have told the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” Funny stuff from a very clever guy. While the heyday of restrictive brick and mortar private clubs may have passed, their brand of exclusivity has migrated pretty effectively to a new locale—the Internet. A growing chorus of complaints replete with snarky comments and asides about being locked out of groups across the frontier of social media sites are on the rise.
Increasingly the rationale for “exclusivity” is based on whether you paid the requisite freight to attend a conference or participate in a given event. The rejection comes dressed up in diplomatic business speak…”we are only able to extend invitations to participate to members of our audience, past and present speakers and presenters…” Entrepreneurs are leveraging a familiar twist to social media groups—membership fees so you may become part of the “in” crowd and finally the ultra, ultra-exclusive, “inclusion in the XYZ Social Media Group is by invitation only.”
Theorems of social stratification are alive and well even as the value of these groups remains unproven. Sure, we all understand that exclusivity and scarcity for humans are like candlelight to a moth. Humans are inextricably attracted to that which is beyond their reach. Yet even those holding the reins of the most exclusive events in technology, education and design, like the TED conferences or All Things Digital Conference-D7 (hosted by the Wall Street Journal and sold out since last fall) understand the value of openness and sharing. Even as they use a “time-lag” strategy to differentiate participants and the public, the power of engaging an audience that did not or could not attend their events remains a valuable part of their overall marketplace focus.
Association leaders face the identical “inside/outside” challenge. While the traditional dues-based model of association membership faces ongoing questions and competition, the use of social media tools to attract attention and build awareness will expand the base of possible participants. How do you balance the exclusivity and economic value of membership with the broader branding essentials and power of being the most trusted and vital advisor for a given profession, industry or cause? Are the demands mutually exclusive? The rise of exclusive and restrictive participation in online groups may actually offer associations some pretense of cover in the near term, but being LinkedIn and LockedOut will undoubtedly backfire. The bigger question remains—what will the optimum “membership” model be in an increasingly transparent and open universe?
In a recent presentation I created a bit of a stir by suggesting the best time for an association CEO to craft an exit strategy was at the moment they accepted the position. Some in the audience thought that planning an exit strategy at the outset, meant you were entering into the new responsibility hokey-pokey style—one foot in, one foot-out. Sort of like planning for a divorce on your wedding day or starting a new dating relationship with a scheduled break-up planned in advance. The analogies miss the point. Prenuptial agreements aside for the moment, employment contracts and economic reality all suggest something different is afoot and exit strategies are a vital part of beginning anew. The absence of employer-employee loyalty, once endemic to corporate America has become a veritable pandemic and the non-profit world is not immune. Companies laid-off over 832,000 employees in the first quarter of 2009 alone. And turnover at the C-level is a growing trend in both the for- and non-profit sectors. According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas which tracks public and private company CEO departures there were 1,484 chief executives who went to the door in 2008.
My point is that in accepting a new position it is important you have a vivid concept of what the goals and expectations for your leadership tenure will be. Said differently, why are you taking the position in the first place? Have you established a set of personal milestones to assess your progress and satisfaction with the work? Does the work and your results align with your strengths, self-image and the expectations? And perhaps more importantly what will you do if it doesn’t? While most of us would agree leaving a post is the choice of last resort, knowing you have a plan, including the resources and support to do so, seems prudent rather than predictive.
Which left me wondering how often CEO’s and other leaders assess their own successes, goal achievements and personal satisfaction in their current positions. Do you have personal milestones in your current or new position or is it simply all about putting the work first and worrying about yourself later? How do you measure and manage the melange of goals—yours, theirs and the collective “ours”? Do you have an exit strategy? More importantly, should you?