Monday, February 10, 2014

Advice for the Emerging Association Professional

After spending 12 years working in the association world, I am no longer considered an “emerging association professional”.  I could throw in a joke about this just meaning I’m getting old, but instead I wear it as a badge of honor! People from all walks of association life offer lunch or coffee, looking  to me for advice on how to successfully maneuver the mysterious and well-acronymed ocean that is the association industry!  Naturally, I look forward to any excuse for good conversation with a new acquaintance and these requests are both flattering and equally informative for me.

What follows serves as my general advice on how to best engage as an emerging association professional … coffee not included….

Rule #1: Take Charge of Your Own Professional Development

To advance in any profession, you must remain the perpetual student. Your education doesn’t end after university. Many organizations offer some kind of professional development stipend to help foster personal and professional growth. Know what kind of professional development support you have, but don’t stop there! Many conferences offer scholarships for people who might otherwise be unable to attend. You may also offer to volunteer or blog about the event in exchange for registration.

Whatever you do, please join your industry’s association. It should come as no surprise that the association world has its very own Association -- the American Society for Association Executives (ASAE). The experience you gain from meeting a large number of people serving memberships similar to yours is immensely valuable. Helpful tips on membership retention, member value, price of engagement, and so much more from across the spectrum of the association world are waiting for you to reap from others in your field.

Participating in your industry’s association may also provide you the opportunity to speak at future events and conferences. Becoming an adept public speaker can help you professionally in countless ways as well as making you infinitely more employable in the future.

Through continued learning you may even wish to pursue becoming a Certified Association Executive (CAE).   You’ll need to spend some time in the industry first. However, if you think you might go that direction, it’s never too soon to start learning about CAE requirements and areas of study you will want to research ahead of time.

Rule #2: Don’t Undervalue Your Role Because of Your Paycheck

Being an “emerging” anything usually means your paycheck isn’t what you’d like it to be. As an emerging association professional, this can be disheartening to say the least. As you are learning about your membership, caring for it, and bemoaning the antiquated ways your association operates (“You mean you still receive dues via fax?”), it can be frustrating to see the reflection of your labor in your humble paycheck.  Remember: everyone “starts” somewhere, and it’s not where you start, but where you finish that counts!

I remember spending long hours in the office in the beginning; always one of the last to leave. True, there was much I needed to learn, but I also felt a charged sense of urgency. Surely no one saw things the way I did – otherwise there would be more change!  Frustration was an everyday event that sometimes felt would never end.  But still that energy grew, much like I’m sure it’s growing within you today.

 Use that energy. Learn as much as possible.  Be aggressive!

Ask more questions than you feel comfortable. There are oftentimes internal politics at play that make seemingly obvious answers impossible to play out. Find another way. Do not, under any circumstances, believe that the size of your paycheck determines your worth to the office. Your paycheck will grow as you garner more experience. But always be prepared to show why you are ready for more responsibility, learning opportunities, and (eventually) money.

Rule #3: Participate In Associations as a Volunteer

There is no better teacher than experience. Volunteering as a council member or in any role, really, is one of the best ways you can begin to understand your members.  Initially serving on ASAE’s Component Relations Section Council was an extremely “meta” experience for me . I was used to putting together the schedule for my association’s councils, not serving as a council member. However, once I served as a council member, I began to better understand what a council member looks for from the association.

In the meantime, you will still learn what it is to be a member of an association. How much marketing impacts you, how well your milestones are tracked, what it’s like to deal with customer service; all of this will become research fodder for you in your work as an emerging association professional.

Rule #4: Expand Your Network

Proactively work at building relationships and expanding your circle professionally, so that you are constantly learning from those people around you. In addition to all of the networking benefits you will receive in the form of job offers, brainstorming, and reputation building; you will also cultivate your conversation skills and improve on your experiential knowledge.

You should start working to build your reputation early on by meeting as many people as possible and sharing with them your projects and stories….the types of things that will help leave a lasting impression of you. As time goes on, you will find that your reputation will carry more weight than your resume.  Don’t expect this to happen over-night,  but it will happen.

Your association is not the only place to connect. I am particularly fond of other ways to network, like Association Chat, for example. Association Chat, originally created by industry leader Jeff De Cagna and hosted by yours truly, KiKi L’Italien (@kikilitalien), is a weekly chat on Twitter that hosts discussions about the topics of the day for associations. The chat uses the hashtag #AssnChat and happens every Tuesday at 2 pm EST.

The final tip I’ll leave you with today:  Find a mentor!  Find two…find twenty! Mentors are worth their weight in gold because they can provide perspective in tough situations, as often they have been through similar struggles. Mentors can also help guide you to new opportunities you might have never otherwise known existed.  They’ve walked the walk, and talked the talk.  Lean on them whenever possible.

In the comments, please share your own advice, or ask questions if you like. I will answer as quickly as I read them and I am sure readers will appreciate the thought.

1 comment:

  1. Love these and they are good advice for professionals at any stage of their career. I started in higher education and the suggestion I'm about to make comes form one of my mentors when I was a grad student working in student affairs: "There won't be a profession if professionals don't contribute to it." It's in the spirit of your "Participate as a volunteer" advice, but he was specifically referring to the obligation we have to engage in providing content that can inform professional practice and deliberations: writing essays for newsletter and articles for magazines, speaking at conferences, and nowadays contributing via the various social media channels available to us, including offering informed comments.


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