If you’re an association board member who is thinking about hiring a new executive director, this is probably the most important question you need to answer before you start the process of searching for your next staff leader. Should your executive director be an association management professional or an industry expert?

If you’re an association management professional looking for a board to hire you as their next executive director, this question has a simple answer — go with the association management professional.

But which answer is correct? You're asking the wrong question.

I’ll tell you what the right questions are — but first I’ll tell you a quick story about an association management professional named Maria (that's me).

A few years ago, I threw my name in the hat for an open executive director position for an association that shall remain nameless. We’ll call it “The Association of Industry-Focused Members” or “AIFM.”

If you had looked at my resume and compared it to the qualifications and job description, it was a match made in heaven. It was as if they had written the position just for me.

A few weeks after submitting my resume, the dreaded call from the search committee came in. They told me that my resume was perfect. It fit everything they were looking for except one thing they had failed to mention in the job posting — I didn't have enough experience in their industry.

They informed me that was really the most important requirement.

What? I didn't understand. They were going to look for someone who had education, experience and training in their industry to run their association? Why weren't they looking for someone with association management experience to run their association?

So, what questions should they have been asking?

"Do I want my association to be run like a business?"

Here is what I've learned in my 15-plus years working in association management. Strong associations need to be run like a business, by professionals who understand how to run an association.

The association volunteers and members (from the governing board down to a new member) are the industry experts that a good executive director will tap into for the industry perspective.

I have a wise mentor who often reminds me, “Just because you can bake a great pie, doesn't mean you will know how to run a pie shop.” How true this is for most careers.

If you were an educated and trained dentist, would that make you the right person to lead your association representing dentists?

So here’s your take away:

Board members — ask yourself the following questions before you hire an executive director for your association:

  • What level of experience are we looking for our executive director to have in running an association?
  • What are our expectations of the executive director's role vs. the role of the board members?
  • Do we want our executive director to be a professional who is working in his/her chosen career of association management?
  • What experience and training in association management do we want our executive director to have?

Association management professionals — become an advocate for your chosen career. If you’re throwing your name in the hat for the next executive director position, here are a few talking points:

  • Be prepared to specifically talk about your credibility through great education and training in association management.
  • Talk about the value of the CAE certification when running an association.
  • Associations have specific needs. They're a different animal, and special training has equipped you to meet an association’s demands.
  • Your experience and training in association management makes you a better candidate than someone with specific industry experience. Tell them why you are the best candidate.