The many roles of an association CEO

I was invited by the Australasian Society of Association Executives (AuSAE) to the second run of its “Association Insiders” webinar series entitled, “The Many Roles of an Association CEO.” AuSAE is the premier not-for-profit professional society representing over 10,000 individual leaders working in associations in Australia and New Zealand.

The new series features monthly interviews with association leaders who share their insights, experiences and real-world stories from their own organizations. The first webinar was a CEO panel discussion on the “State of Associations,” which I wrote about in this column on March 26, 2021.

For the second run, the high-level panel was composed of David McKeon, CEO of Grain Growers and Kirsty Kelly, CEO of the Australian Institute of Traffic Planning and Management (AITPM). They shared their experiences on the often complex role of an association CEO and their insights on what they have learned along the way. Toni Brearley, CEO of AuSAE, moderated the discussion.

Here are my takeaways from the panel discussion, which resonate with local associations here:

Role of the CEO. Being in a leadership position in the organization, the CEO’s role is non-linear, not at all top-down and more complicated as perceived, due to the intricacies and dynamics of the various relationships involved among stakeholders—i.e., Board, members, staff and volunteers. The CEO’s role is also about representing the association and the industry or profession, noting that the more modern and progressive the industry or profession is, the more modern and progressive the association is as well. Another critical role of the CEO is that of keeping the association financially sustainable to be able to undertake services that members need.

The skills of the CEO. Among the skills needed by the CEO to adapt quickly to the issues at hand and to make a difference include mental toughness and ability to focus, time management and balancing strategic and operational aspects of the organization.

Relationship with the Board. A right governance structure that delineates clearly the roles and functions of the Board and the CEO sets the tone for a healthy relationship and effective governance. Understanding the diversity of Board members in terms of their varied professional disciplines and experiences is key to harnessing enthusiasm and unity. A more personal, conversational and open communication approach to relating with the Board is likewise important. Governance training, onboarding and a “director pipeline” project are also essential elements to consider.

Growth and development prospects. Turning challenges into opportunities, annual work planning, professional and talent development, mentorship, and engaging with peers and with the association community are actions with long-term benefits.

What 2020 taught you: Thriving in a challenging environment, building stronger relationships and communities, work-from-home (productivity versus flexibility) and being there with the members when needed, virtual or otherwise, are some of the things we learned last year.

Despite the many roles of an association CEO, they are essentially the “fulcrum” of the organization, a support which provides the capability for action. The steadier the fulcrum is, the steadier the organization will also be.

The column contributor, Octavio ‘Bobby’ Peralta, is concurrently the secretary-general of the Association of Development Financing Institutions in Asia and the Pacific, Founder & CEO of the Philippine Council of Associations and Association Executives and President of the Asia-Pacific Federation of Association Organizations. The purpose of PCAAE—the “association of associations”—is to advance the association management profession and to make associations well-governed and sustainable. PCAAE enjoys the support of Adfiap, the Tourism Promotions Board, and the Philippine International Convention Center. E-mail:


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