Leaders of Tomorrow: What to Look for in a Prospective CEO

Written by Rhea Steele on March 20, 2018

The association community is facing a crisis of leadership. Many powerful leaders in the space will retire in the next decade, and those roles must be filled by individuals fit to take on today’s changing environment. The CEO can make or break the association from the inside. They fundamentally impact and drive the organizational culture, whether intentionally or unintentionally. When boards recruit, they look for things like industry-specific knowledge, past experience of leadership roles, the fit of the person with the board, and their ability to drive the association forward in the current environment. These skills and abilities serve as a baseline for what’s required of a leader.

There’s another dimension that is often overlooked in hiring processes. Does the prospective leader display empathy and emotional intelligence? Do they approach employees and problems from a place of inquiry? Are they reactionary, or do they seek out diverse opinions to make the organization stronger and better for the long-haul? The board can enhance their hiring processes through leadership inventories that discern answers to these questions.

Let’s look more closely at the attributes required by association leaders today.


The pace of change has increased both inside and outside of associations. Leaders can no longer rely on the stability of a long-running program or the institutional knowledge of a few employees. They must constantly scan their environment to stay on top of trends, monitor the culture of the organization, and gauge member and volunteer perceptions of the association. Leaders must build their personal and organizational ability to identify and respond to changes on the horizon. As novice individuals enter and experienced individuals stay in the workforce, leaders must be ready for the tension between these groups’ differential ability to pivot, innovate, and adapt.

Like businesses, individuals experience the stages of entry, growth, maturity and decline each time they start work in a new organization or industry. The mindsets that support innovation and adaptation are those found in the entry and growth phases of an employee’s work experience. Leaders must continuously assess their teams’ place in this cycle, and infuse professional development opportunities into areas where they see maturity and decline. This means leaders must also be adept at providing differentiated guidance based on a team or individual’s particular point in the cycle, ranging from coaching, to inquiry, to redirection.


Many leaders rise to their position by being incredibly good at what they do. They deliver on projects, parse through information to arrive at a decision, and move organizations towards action. For many in first-time leadership roles, it’s difficult to move away from this action-oriented mindset. Leaders must slow decision-making processes around them to ensure all parties articulate and understand the context for each decision, as well as the impact it will have on their work.

Slowing the pace of decision-making and taking time to weigh priorities allows the leader to be responsive instead of reactive. Leaders need to harness the information provided to them, and search for trends, patterns, or other indicators from which possible futures can be inferred. Armed with a holistic perspective, responsive leaders identify the issues which should be prioritized and give thoughtful guidance to their teams on actions to address those priorities.

Responsive leaders also use silence strategically. Many new leaders underestimate the weight of their words, and how strongly employees respond to them. A rash comment can result in the creation of good-intentioned, but wasted deliverables. Using inquiry alongside silence helps leaders and team members engage in a richer, better informed dialogue before taking action.


Emotional intelligence, empathy, and curiosity are just as important as other qualifications defined by the organization. These qualities are “soft skills” displayed through the interview process. Recruiters should watch how a candidate interacts with others in writing and in person. Are they asking questions that are not pre-scripted? Are they listening to what is being said? Are they engaging with the information shared by the interview team? Are they picking up on subtleties of tone, body language, and word use?

Associations use common interview techniques such as scripted discussions, presentations, or scenario-responses to learn about candidates. These techniques do not allow interviewers a full picture of what the person is like in work situations. Organizations will have better success identifying the true strengths of candidates by bringing them into organizational discussions. For example, if an organization is seeking a government relations strategist, the candidate could be brought into a meeting about government relations. Knowledge, interpersonal behaviors, and leadership capability can all be assessed in situations resulting in a holistic perspective on the candidate’s abilities and strengths.

Rhea spoke in the “A Practical Discussion on Driving Rapid Technological Change” session during SURGE Spring, an interactive virtual summit hosted by AssociationSuccess.org on May 2nd-4th. Click here to watch the sessions on demand.