Tuesday 20 August 2013

How Necessary is “Industry-Specific” Knowledge for Executives?

For some time, I’ve had the off and on discussion with colleagues and even executive recruiters on the topic of what makes a good Executive Director.  Inevitably, the obvious subjects of knowledge of governance, management, organizational development and even good marketing (many other subjects to that would make the list too exhaustive) skills come up.

However, I’ve also noted that as the conversation continues, industry-specific knowledge remains as the discussion point that carries us along the most.

There are CSOs who work in associations and come to their roles with experience built up  specifically within the sectors their association represents.  On the other hand, there are others who come to their role as association management experts with general knowledge from a variety or sectors associations may represent.

Which is better?  An industry specific background to lead an association or is management experience in various associations better?  There may or may not be one direct answer that fits all situations but I do believe it is a debate that begs more thorough discussion in the association world.  I believe it is one where Boards tend to favour their own while executives tend to be more open to the idea that someone can learn “the issues”.

For completion of my CAE designation, I drafted a brief paper discussing this issue (see below).  What do you think?

This post was submitted by Mark Buzan, CAE, Executive Director of the Canadian Dental Assistants Association.  Mark is an association management executive with nearly 16 years experience effectively working with a variety of national nonprofit boards. Mark has directed planning initiatives, strategy & business operation plans, written governance policies, & managed annual budgets to meet organizational goals & optimize organizational effectiveness. He also has a solid reputation for building, managing & promoting member programs to increase bottom-line with improved member services & benefits.

Specializing in strategic communications & government relations, he is a relationship builder in public relations, government relations, social media, & stakeholder relations in roles such as a Stakeholder Liaison, Senior Communications, & Executive Director.  Mark is Public Relations accredited, a Certified Association Executive, & CoAuthor of Online PR & Social Media for Not-for-Profits & Associations.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net


  1. I personally think that we should be looking for a bit of both, if it is possible. Association Management experience should be primary, but if the potential Executive Director/CEO has also studied in this area, or even perhaps worked in the field in a corporate role, all the better.

    How many organizations are promoting from within?

  2. I think it is good, but not crucial. Claude Paul Boivin said it best at his CSAE National conference acceptance speech, you don't have to have Alzheimer to be the lead that association. Open your association to more possibilities. Different markets can bring...different ideas.