Thin Line Between Interview Candidate and Consultant

A funny thing happened the other day as I was preparing for an interview, I realized that there wasn’t a whole lot of difference in preparing for a client proposal as an Association Consultant and as a CEO candidate for a job interview.  Both situations demand investigation and contemplation and a closing pitch that will hopefully result in getting the job.

Of course the concern you always have when you are interviewing for an association job, and probably for most others is that you are literally a free consultant and a new set of eyes with an external perspective.  More than once I fear that I have been used for “my thoughts” on a certain issue within an association that I was interviewing with and aghast discovered later that my free advice was used by the same association to improve their bottom-line.

Any candidate must indeed give examples of how he/she would be engaging within this new association and why wouldn’t a search committee or Board of Directors not ask for your perspective on their “unique situation,” but a candidate must be careful not to give “away the store” before they are even hired for the job.

A finalist for an association position must come prepared to overwhelm the deciders.  He/she must have done their homework and have assimilated the nuances of the particular association.  Let’s be honest, though every association will profess to be unique – they really aren’t!  A truly prepared candidate can use the experiences they have from their previous positions to impress the search committee with new ideas and new perspectives.  It’s those solutions that every Board is looking for and every consultant gets paid for that becomes a sticking point.

Obviously every Search Committee wants to know how prepared you are to assume the management role of their association; they are the Leaders who have grown this organization and they want to make sure that their choice is one they can be proud of for many years to come.  We all know too many who are great presenters but we wouldn’t want them running anything close to our association!

So the real talent here is impressing without giving away all your trade secrets.  In many ways it is like an author on a promotional tour – you want people to be interested in your work but you certainly don’t want to give away the plot before the audience has a chance to buy the book.

It is the goal of the candidate to impress but also give the impression that there is much more of that possible for the association if you are hired.  Obviously you will receive bottom-line questions about membership retention and non-dues revenue but it behooves the candidate to speak about some of the success stories you have had at previous organizations but don’t be too specific because one, you only have so much time to impress and two, do they really want to know all the dirty details?

Any candidate interviewing for a new association position will have the need for additional information, after all you don’t have all the nuances and association history afforded you for this conversation.  You can be as revealing as personally necessary but do be aware that overt generalizations may not be enough for the search committee.  You might be forced to answer direct questions on some of their pressing issues.  Issues that would be nice to know ahead of time but unfortunately is rarely revealed to the candidates before hand.

Thus the Catch 22 of any interview – you need to show the search committee that you are knowledgable, experienced and the obvious candidate for the job but yet you must also be prepared to be used as an unpaid external perspective on their problems; what many may define as a Consultant.   If you ultimately get the job, there certainly is no harm; it’s when you are passed over that it really hurts and what makes the interview process so stressful, yet interesting.

Dan Borschke is a Certified Association Executive (CAE) who has been a CEO for 3 distinct trade associations in his career.  He is one of only 230 Association Executives worldwide since 1986 who has been granted with the prestigious designation of Fellow by the American Society of Association Executives.  He currently is between positions and has written more than 75,000 words or 125 blog postings on the topics of job search, career transition and association management.

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

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