Vol. 42, No. 2

What’s in a name? Changing job titles, duties, may signal a more businesslike bar

by Robert J. Derocher

For Ellen Miller-Sharp, executive director/chief executive officer of the San Diego County Bar Association, what better way was there to change the way that bar staff members are viewed than to no longer call them “staff?” The shift about two years ago to “internal team members,” she says, was also accompanied by the addition of words such as “specialist” and “expert” to their titles.

“We wanted to create titles that sent a signal to the member that the person they’re talking to at the bar is not their staff member. We’re exposing them to experts in their areas,” Miller-Sharp explains. “Association team members are partners to our members.”

Also in on the title changes: Miller-Sharp—who added CEO to her title—and her executive team, who added chief operations officer, chief financial officer and chief communications officer to their titles last year.

Job titles and responsibilities continue to evolve with changes in the workplace and in society, say those who track such trends, such as ASAE/The Center for Association Leadership. Some name changes reflect an emphasis on greater service and engagement with members and a nod toward the growth of technology and social media, and others may indicate the growing importance of managing associations—a task increasingly akin to running a for-profit company. Though seemingly subtle, many say, the changes also echo the persistent challenges of growing associations and related services, while also attracting top-notch staff to work with them.

What message does a title give?

“A job title should reflect what you need for tomorrow,” says Jennifer Baker, Senior Director of ASAE Business Services, Inc., an ASAE subsidiary that consults with associations. “Associations are recognizing that the next generation of professionals have been shaped by a different kind of model for joining.”

That model, she explains, continues to feature an emphasis on technology and social media opportunities, while not featuring an almost knee-jerk inclination for young professionals to join associations the way earlier generations did. Increasingly, it has become a value proposition in which associations often need to do a better job of proving their worth to potential members and in making connections. To that end, engaging members has become more important than just serving them, Baker says.

An example: Of nearly 500 association "positions wanted" notices posted recently with ABSI (the ASAE subsidiary), 127 positions listed “engagement” in their job titles, Baker notes. “We need new tactics, and that’s where engagement comes in,” she says. “The message is, ‘Let’s engage you and unfurl this story of what’s in it for you as a member.’”

When Steve Love joined the Bar Association of San Francisco last year, he became the director of donor community engagement—not director of development, which was the previous title.

“It was changed to really focus more on the engagement process,” Love says. “The key to development is relationship building. It’s not a transactional relationship. It’s to get people involved.

“The original title seemed a bit one-dimensional. This [new] title clearly defines what the job actually is.”

While Love says he can’t pin it just on the title change, he has noticed that “my phone calls and emails are getting returned more quickly.”

‘Association management is a profession’

The evolution of job titles, Baker and others say, also reflects a growing trend toward professionalizing associations—from the inside and the outside. Marc Staenberg’s title switched from executive director to chief executive officer of the 5,000-member Beverly Hills Bar Association a few years after he took on the role in 2004.

“We have a lot of interaction with the business world, and I was seeing a perceived difference between being a CEO and being an executive director. I needed to have a title that they understood,” he says. “It promotes a more understandable dialogue.”

Miller-Sharp had the same thoughts when she added CEO to her title in 2016. “I personally like the dual title: executive director/CEO; that way, we are appealing to all audiences,” she says. And once that was done, the bar’s board of directors added chief officer titles for the rest of the bar’s internal team leadership.

The chief officer focus is becoming more common in the association world, Baker says, as many associations seek out executives with more business-oriented skills and backgrounds than ever before.  “[Association executives] are not just responsible for administration, but they’re expected to be strategic and to create a business model,” she says. “A CEO title can make that more clear.”

Job seekers are also embracing the changes, says Baker, with many qualified candidates armed not only with business degrees, but also with professional accreditation, such as the certified association executive—a fast-growing certification offered by ASAE. As a result, associations are adjusting their job titles to attract high-caliber candidates in a competitive job market.

“You do see more job postings with ‘CAE preferred,’” Baker says. “Association management is a profession. It’s a body of knowledge.”

And when coupled with positions focusing on technology and engagement, Baker and others say, the expectation—and hope—is that these business leaders will help associations in their continued efforts to attract new members, retain established ones, and grow.

“Changing titles creates an opportunity to talk to members about [what we do for them],” Miller-Sharp says. “We’re recognizing that there are all sorts of engagement pathways.”