How to Successfully Search for a Professional Association’s Next CEO


executive search for professional associationsSearching for the chief executive for a trade or professional association is a unique and challenging process – and is one of the board of director’s most important responsibilities.  

Today, many associations – even successful ones – are facing membership and financial challenges that must be handled directly by the chief executive. That’s why the board and the entire association will benefit from a comprehensive and thoughtfully planned process (involving the appropriate organization stakeholders) that clearly defines the chief executive’s role, priorities and goals.

At Dise & Company, we have extensive experience conducting candidate searches for trade or professional associations. And when we conduct an executive search for these associations, we advise and lead our clients through the steps that will find the executive who will seamlessly fit into an organization’s culture and successfully fulfill all position requirements.

Step 1: Form the Perfect Search Committee

We’re often asked about how a search committee should be structured and how it should ideally run. First, the board of directors should appoint five to seven individuals to the search committee. These individuals should be dedicated to providing the best leadership possible for the organization and meet the priorities set forth by the board. The search committee members should be willing to make themselves available for all candidate interviews, but because schedules are often difficult to coordinate, committee members should immediately come to an agreement on the number of members who absolutely must be present for each interview.    

Confidentiality is the foundation of a credible and trustworthy search process. The need for confidentiality cannot be emphasized enough to the members of the search committee. A breach of confidentiality could result in the termination of the process, resulting in a loss of time, resources and, potentially, viable candidates. A breach could also cause the most qualified candidates to withdraw from the process out of fear that disclosure of their candidacy could jeopardize their current employment.  

It’s also crucial to appoint a key point of contact, or committee chair. The chair of the search committee may be appointed by the board or selected by the committee itself. The chair’s duty is to represent the interests of the search committee and serve as the primary link to the executive search team at Dise & Company.  

Step 2: Define the Position’s Requirements Up Front & Get All Stakeholders On Board with a Scorecard

After an association establishes its search committee, the team at Dise & Company will define job search requirements. This critical step goes beyond using the basic job description, and, instead, clearly defines all that’s required of the association’s chief executive and why. The culture of the organization must also be considered to ensure the executive’s leadership style fits within it. In associations that may be going through difficult times or dysfunction, it may be appropriate to conduct focus groups or surveys to ensure that everyone has a say.  

At Dise & Company, we’ve found that creating an official job scorecard is particularly important when searching for an association’s chief executive. This is because an association’s search committee is generally made up of members from many different locations who hold various demanding positions – members can even be chief executives of their own businesses. While they’re all aiming to hire the best chief executive possible, the search committee members often have different ideas about what they want their next executive to achieve and what qualities and behaviors he or she should demonstrate.  

So what is the critical differentiator between job description versus job scorecard? Why exactly is a job scorecard so important when selecting an association’s chief executive?

  • Job description: A job description can be thought of as a comprehensive listing of all functions and activities someone is expected to be responsible for on the job.  
  • Job scorecard: A job scorecard goes beyond mere responsibilities and clearly defines what must occur in order for the association’s new executive to be successful. It also defines the critical behavioral competencies a candidate should demonstrate to fit into the organization’s culture. We’ve found the job scorecard, developed by best-selling author Geoff Smart, to be a particularly effective way to get everyone on the search committee aligned.  

The job scorecard also ensures that our own search team at Dise & Company is aligned with the search committee.  

executive search firm

Step 3: Outline the Executive Search Plan & Timeline

Searching for an association’s chief executive may require a national search since technical background and preferred certification requirements are often unique. Associations, by nature, are specific to industries or professions. The position requirements may state that a candidate requires  years of similar association experience or a designation as a certified association executive (CAE). Advanced technical degrees or years of experience in an industry will all influence the search plan and overall timeline.  

The search plan and timeline may vary based on an association’s requirements. However, you can always expect Dise & Company to lay out a plan with specific milestones related to the expected presentation of candidates. Our search team will have frequent check-in meetings with the key contact, or search committee chair, to:

  • Calibrate search results
  • Make adjustments
  • Determine next steps  

Remember, the search committee chair is critical to a successful search engagement.      

Step 4:  Develop an Interview Process That Guarantees Success

We recommend the interview process for an association’s chief executive be a two-part process. Once the first five to seven candidates are identified by Dise & Company, the chairman and search committee will review and agree on candidates who should go through part one.

Part One

This part should consist of conference-style phone interviews of 60 to 90 minutes in length between each candidate and the search committee. In addition to including open-ended questions about each candidate’s background, these interviews should also include questions that are heavily influenced by the job scorecard. This first part of the interview process will determine if a candidate should move on to part two.

Part Two

The second part of the interview process should consist of an in-person interview between each candidate and the entire search committee. Before an interview, a nondisclosure agreement should be signed by every candidate to ensure more information can be shared about the financial status of the association, the key issues it faces and any ongoing  strategic plans. We recommend this interview give each candidate a 20 to 30 minute opportunity to make a presentation that addresses the key challenges of the association and how that candidate would approach his or her first 90 to 120 days. The remainder of the interview should be structured in a way that allows each committee member an opportunity to address his or her individual concerns or particular areas of interest.

Step 5: Perfecting the Final Offer Process

As with any search undertaken by Dise & Company, you will prepare the offer and we will present it to the candidate, acting as a facilitator of the desired outcome between you and the chief executive you have chosen. As part of the final offer process, issues will be discussed and negotiated and final background and reference checks will be completed.

At Dise & Company, we have considerable experience conducting chief executive searches for trade or professional associations, which means we can deliver quality candidates in the shortest amount of time possible. Contact us if you’d like to learn more.


Tagged With: Executive Search

Phyllis Webb

Research Associate, Phyllis Webb brings a track record of success as a senior IT leader. As a long term IT Director at Progressive Insurance, she has been responsible for managing large organizations and has directed the implementation of many large, multi-year, multi-million dollar projects.