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CEO Update LIVE: Experts reveal key traits for aspiring leaders

Organizations often start out seeking industry insiders, but not always for the right reasons

Live panel
From left, Stephanie Tomasso, Michele Korsmo, Todd Hauptli and Bill Hudson.

Sept. 10, 2019
By William Ehart

The attributes that groups say they want in their next leaders are not necessarily what they really want or need, experts told association executives at CEO Update LIVE: Skills for the C-Suite.

“A lot of times the organizations will say, ‘We need someone who knows us, who knows our industry or our profession, who knows how we tick,’” said Stephanie Tomasso, executive recruiter with Russell Reynolds Associates.

“And I really push back on that. How important is that really?” she said. “Because there are a lot of transferable skill sets going from one regulated industry to another. Or if your key challenge is finding new revenue outside of dues, why do you need somebody who knows your industry or profession to do that?”

The other three panelists were Michele Korsmo, CEO of the $11 million-revenue Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America; Todd Hauptli, CEO of the $76 million-revenue American Association of Airport Executives; and Bill Hudson, executive recruiter at Heidrick & Struggles. CEO Update Managing Director Mark Graham moderated the panel, which was held at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Hudson agreed that industry credentials can be overrated in association management.

“(Associations) will often say they need someone from the industry (because it’s) very complicated,” he said. “Others will say we need an association person, and others will want a mixed slate of candidates so they can see the value of both.

“And they’ll see that one candidate stepped in from outside the industry and did very well at another association” and become convinced the executive can do the job for their industry too, Hudson said.

“They are looking for somebody to work with them and understand their association, maybe from outside the industry, maybe from inside the industry, who can help them understand trends and map out the future for them,” he said.

Forward, with confidence

Hauptli and Korsmo said vision—and the optimism to pursue it—are the most important traits in a chief executive. Korsmo is in her second CEO position and Hauptli has led AAAE for the past six years, after 22 years as its chief lobbyist.

“I would say optimism,” Korsmo said, in response to a question about most important characteristics from Graham.

“All of the other (traits) will fall in line. So much of what the CEO has to do now is to help the industry see the future and figure out that path. Being optimistic about how you see that future is really key, and the best way to be optimistic is to have a structure behind it and one of the things that involves is having that vision.”

Hauptli put vision first and optimism second.

“You have to demonstrate that you’ve got this, that you see it, that you know the plan and you’ve thought it out,” he said. “It’s all about executing on it and aligning people around a common vision and set out to accomplish that. That requires a lot of optimism.”

Read more insights from the panelists in the Sept. 13 issue of CEO Update.