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Are You CEO Material?

The traits and skills associations are looking for in an executive officer today.

by Leonard Pfeiffer

After more than 25 years in the executive search business placing more than 200 CEOs—including 15 REALTOR® association top executives—I’ve learned a thing or two about what association boards of directors are looking for when recruiting a new CEO.

The search for a new CEO always starts with a long wish list of characteristics, usually paired with the caveat, “There is no way anyone could meet these requirements, but this is what we want to see in the candidates you bring us.”

We hear this all the time. At first, the wish list of CEO characteristics is long. But as the search progresses, the same four or five key criteria always move to the top. And despite every association’s reliance on technology today, “tech savvy” still isn’t in the top five.

Strong communication skills

It’s startling to see how few well-educated and successful executives actually have good communication skills. We’ve seen highly reputable executives lose a chance at an opportunity due to their inability to clearly articulate answers to the questions asked.

The best CEOs are clear and concise. Remember the simple principle: Less is more. Say what you need, with no ifs, ands, or buts. You’d be surprised at how many senior executives obfuscate, reverse themselves, take multiple positions, and leave audiences confused and unimpressed. Simply put, direct and succinct answers will resonate well with any audience.

Entrepreneurial mentality

Entrepreneurs reach out beyond their own organization and industry; they listen and talk to people from a wide range of backgrounds. They encourage and solicit off-the-wall ideas and then use experience and imagination to make the ideas come to life. Boards like a CEO with an entrepreneurial bend—one who can think beyond the obvious, who is not afraid to try new ideas from outside the association management norm and outside real estate.

Boards often say they need a CEO with new “energy” and ideas that will bring in new income or cut costs without sacrificing services. Look for innovative ways in which you can affect positive change in your association through nontraditional means. And if you never thought of yourself as a particularly inventive risk-taker type, then surround yourself with people who are.

Strategic thinker

A strategic thinker is a priority for all boards. They want an AE to have a view of the future and be able to clearly articulate (there’s that communication skill again) a strong vision of where an organization can be in two, three, or five years—not just how he or she will deal with today’s crisis.

I’ve seen association recruiting committees wowed by CEO candidates retelling “war stories” of developing and implementing strategic concepts, and how they saw where the association needed to be and took the steps to bring it there.

Business savvy

Every professional society seems to think at first that the best CEO will be from their ranks. Yet as the search progresses, organizations become more realistic about the talent needed in a CEO. Real estate expertise and membership relations are no longer on the list of top AE skills. Boards have shifted to focus more on selecting executives with broad business savvy to lead their organizations.

It became clear during a search committee discussion in 2015 that across-the-board communication skills, strategic thinking, and solid management experience were the most important criteria, even more important than industry-specific knowledge.

The most desirable CEO candidates are those who have overall business experience in accounting and finance, advocacy, management (of the board, staff, and volunteers), marketing, communications, and technology. By no means should they be experts in all fields, but experience across many is important.

Likewise, diplomacy and the ability to work with the executives in charge of these fields are crucial. A demonstrated knowledge of working well with others inside and outside the organization is key. A CEO is not someone who can do it all independently.

If you don’t already have an extensive background, broaden your involvement to diversify your skill set. Association experience can be very attractive, but if you’re a political affairs director or a communications director and your expertise is limited to one sector, make yourself more attractive by expanding your portfolio through education or volunteer work.

A motivator

Of course, all these new communication, strategic thinking, entrepreneurial, and management talents don’t work well if you are not able to motivate the world to follow you. Boards like to see excitement and commitment—a real passion for what you are doing. This all translates into the motivation factor. Boards ask themselves, “Can this candidate get the board, the staff, the public excited about our issues?”

This is not to say that you have to be a fearless Gen. Patton-style leader, but George Patton’s strengths included an absolute commitment to getting the job done. Like all great leaders, Patton had great passion that motivated others to follow. If you want to lead, if you are to be the CEO, you need to care, to have a passion for all aspects of the job. Although you cannot manufacture the kind of ardor that motivates devotion, you can stoke the flames of passion by reminding yourself precisely what it is about becoming a CEO that so inspires you. That passion, that enthusiasm, will become contagious and motivate others to listen to you, to work with you, and to follow your lead.

To prepare yourself to be a CEO—or a better CEO—assess your present strengths and experiences. Do they include most of these five attributes above? If not, build up those aspects of your experience and take your AE career to the next level.

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