While this election cycle seems particularly disruptive, once the results are in, a very predictable pattern takes over Washington, D.C. Change in the White House and in Congress also brings change to K Street.  Washington’s trade associations will begin a period of reflection and recalibration, examining institutional goals and objectives as well as organizational leadership capacity to implement that agenda. New research and validated psychometric assessment of Washington’s top trade association executives reveals several characteristics associated with success.

Trade association CEOs wear more than just their “advocate” hat. Major changes in the social, economic and political ecospheres of their respective industry mean that successful trade association leaders need the skills of a corporate executive as much as those of an ambassador.  Indeed, trade associations are uniquely positioned at the intersection of government and business, forcing leaders to balance the often competing interests of stakeholders in both spheres.


Historically, trade association CEOs were heavily focused on cultivating political relationships and access. However, changes in the social, economic and political landscape, as well as shifting member demographics and a growing demand for transparency, have prompted a new leadership profile to emerge. While trade association leaders must still possess public policy savvy and an ability to develop and maintain critical relationships in Washington, D.C., and beyond, they must also demonstrate traditional corporate executive competencies, such as sound business acumen, proven operational expertise and, in some instances, direct or aligned industry experience.

So what are the key ingredients of effective trade association CEOs? It turns out, there are several - some are obvious, others may come as a surprise.  Russell Reynolds Associates asked CEOs of leading trade associations, recognized by The Hill for their advocacy performance, to participate in our research. The results indicate times are changing and leadership style must change with it.

Flexible thinking and an ability to see around corners.  Given the volatility and uncertainty of the political landscape, trade association executives must demonstrate an ability to quickly grasp emerging threats and creatively forge relationships with coalition partners, allied industry groups and policymakers that will protect the interests of the industry they represent.

Modest and humble.  That’s right. Some of the most effective trade association CEOs are unpretentious, focusing on the needs of members and the betterment of the organization rather than on personal gain or recognition. Humility enables trade association CEOs ensure productive partnerships with policymakers, put members’ interests first and avoid discord among the membership, which is often segmented due to conflicting stakeholder interests.

Collaborative and diplomatic. When faced with the conflicting demands of various constituencies and the imperative to build consensus and garner support from multiple stakeholder groups, these qualities are essential.

Self-directed. Given the delicate balancing of interests and stakeholders, trade association CEOs must be able to abstract themselves from “group think” and establish an independent point of view. While it is important to be inclusive and democratic, they also must know when to apply their own thinking and problem solving skills to best address critical stakeholder needs in a timely fashion. 

Committedresults oriented and decisive.  This one may seem obvious, but that doesn’t mean it is always present. Effective trade association CEOs are driven by a sense of personal commitment and connectivity with members. They must distill complex issues into clear, actionable steps to maintain progress amidst dynamic circumstances. Similarly, they must be willing to tackle bureaucracy and cut through red tape in order to address the changing needs of their membership.

What does all of this mean for Washington in a transition year?  The expectations for successful leadership have evolved and a new breed of trade association officers is emerging.  The next generation of trade association leaders will be required to possess a broader suite of skills.  Now is the time to assess the leadership qualities of your organization and, if necessary, make enhancements to ensure success in the future.

Stephanie Tomasso is Practice Leader – Trade & Professional Associations for the Washington, DC office of Russell Reynolds Associates, a leading executive search and assessment firm.  

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.