Association Leadership 2020

By Don Dea

What are the competencies of future association CEOs? How do we develop future leaders? How do they move up into the system? What types of association structures need to change to support these super CEOs?

Association Leadership 2020 is a grassroots research project undertaken by Fusion Products to identify what the future CEO will look like and how we will find him or her. Three interconnected work-teams of emerging leaders, current CEOs, and volunteer leaders have interpreted the results of the initial research and are re-imaging association leadership competencies for a more diverse, connected, and dynamic future.

The following are highlights of the preliminary findings of Association Leadership 2020, which were unveiled at digitalNow, recently held at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin in Orlando, Florida.

Emerging Leaders

Associations 2020 Team

Principals of Association Leadership 2020 were: Joel Albizo, FASAE, CAE, Chief Executive Officer, Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards; Pamela Kaul, President & Founder, Association Strategies; and Don Dea, Co-Founder, Fusion Productions.

Members of the Advisory Group included: Arlene Pietranton, PhD, CAE, CEO, American Speech-Lanagugae-Hearing Association; Paul Pomerantz, CAE, CEO, American Society of Anesthesiologists; and Scott Wiley, CAEP, President & CEO, Ohio Society of CPAs.

The Volunteer Leaders Team included: Mary Lynn Fayoumi, CAE, GPHR, President & CEO, Management Association; Ortha Thorton, President, National Parent Teachers Association; Carol Finn, Past President, American Geophysical Union; Scott MacLean, Past Chair, Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society; and Elizabeth Pullen, Past President, American Industrial Hygiene Association.

The CEO Team included: Mark Dorsey, CPA, Executive Director, Professional Ski Instructors of American; Bergitta Cotroneo, FACMPE, Deputy Chief Executive Officer & EVP, Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine; and John Bournas; President & CEO, International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering.

The Emerging Leaders Team included: Mila Fuller, EdD, CAE, Deputy Executive Director, National Council of Teachers of English; Rita Fujiswa, MBA, CAE, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, California Association of health Facilities; and Karen Gonzales, CMP, Executive Vice President, Sales & Business Development, Destination Marketing Association International.

  • Boards are becoming increasing reliant on CEOs to provide strategic leadership and, accordingly, they are paying more attention to their development and succession. This is uncharted territory for many groups and places new demands on relationships, norms, policies, and practices that support the current way of doing things. This also adds a new dynamic to roles and increases the importance of models, training, and communication to achieve clarity and understanding.
  • Associations lack developed frameworks, practices, and tools for identifying and developing future CEOs; this is complicated by the fact that the vast majority of associations are very small (by corporate standards), may not have staff with the requisite potential and that the marketplace is opaque, and development tends to be siloed within each organization.
  • The future holds potential for substantial disruption of traditional revenue streams and value propositions (outside of relationships and other more difficult to replicate/monetize activities).

Volunteer Leadership

  • Expectations for CEOs are changing. Once considered by elected leaders as "the implementers," at least in progressive organizations, they are expected to become full strategic partners – able to assess and communicate trends, understand and articulate the impact on members and constituents, motivate boards to discuss and respond, and suggest innovative strategies. Critical competencies include scanning, communication, and business planning. CEO perspective (regardless of association geography) is becoming increasingly international. They also scan the environment for events in other sectors that may prove "disruptive" for their industries and professions.
  • CEOs are expected to help facilitate with elected leadership the tough strategic choices (using Michael Porter’s model) of what the association will and will not do. The CEO will have the courage and political acumen to lead this strategy through both volunteer and staff structures.
  • This is uncharted territory for many groups and places new demands on relationships, norms, policies, and practices that support the current way of doing things.
  • CEOs are expected to navigate the larger world that volunteers and staff cannot. This includes the virtual crossing of geographic, cultural, technological, and generational boundaries. In particular, they need to be comfortable with how technology is transforming all business sectors.
  • Talent management and development is co-equal with strategy as a key responsibility and competency. One of the main responsibilities for CEOs is the development of their team, themselves, and their volunteers. Boards are paying more attention to CEO development and succession.


  • The future CEO is expected to be relevant in the context of the organization, balancing technical/business, political astuteness, and human capital management to successfully help shape and execute strategies in a changing environment. Whether or not "competency" is the best term is ripe for debate as is the degree to which skills trump "cultural fit" (noting that a CEO’s tenure can be association with demonstrable business and mission success but be underappreciated by the elected leadership). Validating foundational research, the group proposed that business acumen will continue to remain a critical competency, while "patterned" leadership may give way to "fluidity" along with a greater emphasis on outcomes and deliverables (versus strategy). Also noted is the potential for the CEO to evolve from merely being "politically astute" to being a "politically aware" change agent.
  • It is believed that societal shifts related to work-life integration, entrepreneurialism, team versus individual work practices, shortening attention spans, and distrust of institutions will drive change in expectations of and demands on future CEOs. Perhaps even more so than their corporate counterparts, association executives will be challenged to align the needs of diverse stakeholders with the mission and business and to act quickly to ensure relevance. The possibility of organizational underperformance/failure due to governance inertia was also noted as a major new risk factor that future CEOs will need to mitigate.
  • Despite the often stated belief that the future for associations and their members and stakeholders will be more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, there is some skepticism that the CEO position and its fundamental character and complexity will change greatly. For example, will there be a "correction" to the current frenetic pace of work, and will the marketplace gradually adapt in an organic way to produce the executives it needs?

The next steps of Association Leadership 2020 will be to integrate input from digitalNow participants into the research; to complete phase two of the report; to identify emerging practices and models; and to identify solution opportunities. Those results are expected to be released at digitalNow 2016.

Don Dea is Co-Founder of Fusion Productions, 60 Barrett Drive, Suite E, Webster, NY 14580; 585-872-1900; He also serves as Executive Vice President, Digital Services, BROSS Group, and as a Board Member of both Excelsior College and the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.