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The Now, The New & The Next in Careers

I'd Love to Lead an Association One Day – How Do I Make it Happen?

22 Jun 2010 3:28 PM | Anonymous

By Charlotte Weeks

Many people are interested in working for an association. Along with many of the perks of a corporate job, there’s the added bonus of feeling you are making a difference. The power to drive this change inspires many to set their sights on an executive director role. While there is no one set career path, most association leaders share common skills, past jobs, and educational backgrounds.

Work History. Prior to acquiring this leadership role, many association executives not only held a management position, they also had significant non-profit experience. Depending on the organization, the specific type of experience may be very important. Some boards want people who have worked in the same field (such as a medical or arts association), while others prefer extensive experience from an organization of similar size. 

Education. On the other hand, the educational backgrounds of executive directors are extremely varied. A minimum of a bachelor’s degree is almost always required, but many association leaders also have their master’s. Regardless of the amount of schooling, majors are just as varied. Bachelor’s degrees may be in social work, business, or liberal arts. Those who have completed graduate work may have an M.B.A., an M.S.W., or an M.P.A. (to name just a few!). They may also be industry specific–for example, the leader of a medical association will likely be an M.D. 

Attributes. Most executive directors have strong leadership abilities. To ensure that the daily operations of the association are completed, they must be able to successfully guide management and staff. As they are also responsible for carrying out the vision established by the organization’s board of directors, strategic planning skills are usually another major asset. 

Additional Qualifications.  Those who have the most successful careers in association leadership stay up-to-date on industry trends. They are active in “Associations for Associations” such as ASAE, the Center for Association Leadership, and The Association Forum of Chicagoland. They regularly read trade journals such as CEO Update and Association News. 

Obviously, there are a variety of roads you can take if becoming the executive director of an association is your goal.  Regardless of how you get there, it helps to have a passion for the area your association serves. This will ensure you have a rewarding career on your way to the top!

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