Style, Substance and Sincerity: Ingredients For Superb Governance and Leadership

In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the remarkable author investigates English societal mores of the late 1800’s.  One of the infamous quotes from the very quotable novel and play is character Gwendolyn’s comment, “In matters of utmost importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”  

The debate of style over substance and sincerity has been going on since the beginning of time and will continue until a definitive answer is determined.  In the interim, we are forced to argue the virtues of all three elements and how they determine the success of a candidate during a job search.

The most acceptable answer when asked about style over sincerity (or substance) is that all 3 characteristics would be most appreciated.  We all have been victims in our career of individuals who can spin to their heart’s content.  They may not have all the answers but they certainly have style.  They look the part, they act the part and they speak the part but if you took the time to dig beyond the surface you would find that there just isn’t much there.

During the search process it is quite obvious that you need a whole lot of sincerity, as Wilde would say.  No one will ever approach you if you don’t have the credentials.  Today’s job market makes it even more difficult because the competition is so brutal.  Association Execs are battling with not just their own but with lobbyists, politicians and individuals from the industry or profession who think that a position with their association or society is just the right job to cap off their careers.

It is stunning to see how many non-profits are now attracting non-trained association execs.  Though competent business professionals can certainly prosper in the association world – with numerous examples of successful stories, associations do have unique nuances and demands that need unique talents and expertise.

We have all heard it more than once, the job description requires a CEO with a CAE but also a background in the specific profession or trade.  These individuals are few and far between and if the search committee needs to choose between the 2 prerequisites they will almost always pick an individuals from the trade or profession in question and let the CAE slide.

And in numerous cases, the first person the new CEO from the profession or trade will hire will be a number two CAE who will be the operations person of the association and provide all the talents not found in the initial hire.  If Angie’s List provided recommendations for Association Execs they would list the individual’s business and governance acumen, not familiarity with construction or agriculture.  You certainly don’t want me performing heart surgery, even if I did spend the night at a Holiday Inn Express and the same can be said about most surgeons who have little expertise in managing an association despite previously being on numerous Boards of Directors.

A competent Association Exec can feel comfortable in any environment.  It may take time to comprehend the new lingo but governance is governance and leadership is leadership, no matter what the specialty or focus of the association or society might be.  An Association exec brings along substance, it probably won’t be to the degree that an individual who has spent their entire careers in the profession or trade might have but we are fast learners and we will not embarrass you as a spokesman for the industry.

If Boards and Management truly are partnerships, individuals with a variety of backgrounds and experiences are fundamental in making an entity successful.  Diversity is not just gender or ethnic/racial specific; diversity of backgrounds, talents and experiences can make discussions not just more interesting but also much more valuable when a group is determining a solution to a mutual concern.  Varied perspectives can bring more light to a problem and an external viewpoint always asks the question that internal residents fall to approach.

Style, substance and sincerity are all vital elements of a successful Association Exec.  You won’t get the attention of the decision-makers without a certain amount of style and panache but if you are going to get the respect of your members – substance and sincerity are always mandatory. A complete leader has it all – a friendly reminder for those who make management decisions on the future of their associations or societies.

Dan Borschke is a Certified Association Executive who has been a CEO for 3 distinct trade associations in his career.  He is one of only 230 Association Executives worldwide who has been granted the prestigious designation of Fellow by the American Society of Association Executives.  He currently is between positions and has written more than 50,000 words and 85 blog postings on the topics of job search and career transition.

Copyright:  MMXI.  Reprint of this article is permitted if the above paragraph is included.

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