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Advice for the new CEO - Part 1

Updated: Jun 10, 2019

Simon Forrester, IAL Board Member and Chief Executive of the National Association of Jewellers, sets out guidance for those stepping into their first association leadership role.


So you’ve been interviewed, put through the wringer, and met the Board who have metaphorically kicked your tyres and found you to be their ideal candidate. You have a start date. So what now?


I interviewed and surveyed 30+ Association leaders to get their tips on what to do from day one. My thanks to you all for sharing your insights, which I have anonymised and summarised below. Here is part one of two.


Ask Questions

· Understand the landscape, who does what, and what your association actually does

· Find out what the Board wants and expects, their vision and strategic priorities. Visit their workplace to understand them and the sector

· Understand the key outputs and what’s required to deliver them

· Talk to and get to know the whole staff team – they are the Association’s greatest resource. Sit in on appraisals and exit interviews

· Ask the Members what they want and need - consult and engage them, particularly those larger and more active ones – what do they hope for and expect from Membership?

· Spend time listening and learning from the staff team. They may well have the answers to the challenges that led to the CEO transition, but they just weren’t being heard


Know What Business You’re in

· Ask for and read the business plan. If they don’t have one, starting to write one should be an early objective. Set one, three and five year objectives in obvious areas such as membership benefits, growth, staffing, etc. Where does the association want to be and how will they get there?

· What happened with the last strategy? Is it well-used or just dusted off occasionally? Were KPIs met? Are things on track? Why did this happen?

· Review the full and management accounts and get a handle on assets and reserves, how well the finances work, how healthy the organisation is, and the health of main income streams.

· What is your existing and potential market? What are the easy opportunities?

· Become familiar with charters, byelaws, articles, memoranda, codes of conduct, financial audits etc. and start work to ascertain if changes are needed taking account of recent policies such as GDPR.

· What laws apply? If you have a Charter, a charitable status or offices in different countries you'll have different legal frameworks to manage


Believe in Yourself

· Trust your judgement; there’s a good reason they chose you

· Your first day as a CEO is like taking the stabilisers off a bike. You’ve trained for it, but it’s different. Go with it, use your experiences from elsewhere, and enjoy the ride!

· Be prepared to stand your ground with the Board and push back – but pick your fights, always backed by plenty of hard evidence


Be Wary of Others

· Don’t take everything to be the gospel truth or accept the status quo for granted

· Watch out for the ready-made answers to questions that have been posed as being urgent – what do they stand to gain by this?

· There will be some members who just don’t like you, and some who are just downright difficult. Live with it, focus on the majority.

· Establish boundaries (protect personal time and space, make clear what you can accomplish)

· Some staff will expect you to be the arbiter in their internecine wars. Keep out of it – make them sort it out, you are not there to be a referee


Create a Support Network

· It’s lonely being an Association CEO. Members won’t understand what you do, staff may not either – find a network and nurture it. IAL offers this in spades.

· Find a ‘critical friend’ who understands enough of your professional challenge without being too close to it, and will test your analysis and ideas.

· Consider an executive coach or mentor – ask for this before or soon after you start

· Look at what your peers are doing in other similar organisations from different sectors, and benchmark key performance areas

· Your staff will have your back if they know you have theirs – be approachable and get to know as many people as you can

In the second part of this article I’ll focus on managing change as a new Association leader.


About the Author

Simon Forrester MBA MIAM is the Chief Executive of the National Association of Jewellers. He began his career in the NHS, and in the mid-1990s moved to a senior management role in a professional body. An association manager by profession, Simon has worked in a variety of industry sectors - most recently public health pest management. He joined the NAJ team in January 2018 where he oversees the strategic direction of the association, business planning and monitoring, provides leadership to the team, managing its day-to-day functions, and develops NAJ’s profile with key stakeholders. Simon has an MBA from Birmingham City University, and in 2016 was voted Chief Executive of the Year by the Association of Association Executives.

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