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Advice for Emerging Professionals

Like many of you who may be reading this post I fell into association management. My career started when I was 22 years old and I was lucky enough to be hired by an association executive who was also a wonderful mentor.  I have learned a lot of lessons and here are my top five hints for those of you who are embarking on this awesome career journey.

1. Learn about the history of associations.

This seems like “just a job,” and in some respects it is. Meetings, phone calls, emails can lead you to believe that associations are just another “company.” However, they aren’t. Associations have a long and unique history within the political system in the United States.  They are the embodiment of our rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press. We have a long, legal tradition underpinning our activities.  Our ability to influence the political system for both good and bad is immense. I am proud to have taken part as a bit player in the bigger game called “democracy.”

2. Do not take your eye off of societal changes.

Due to pressed budgets, small staffs and challenges within the specific industries or professions we represent it is extremely easy to become myopic and to take our gaze off of the larger society that we function within. This type of intense focus on our internal realities can help us mobilize and get things done, but it can also blind us to larger opportunities that are on the horizon for our members. Changes in science, technology, values and even pop culture are continual and our adaptation to these new modalities is one of the most important keys to our longevity and success.

3. Use the “royal we.”

The best piece of advice I ever got was, “Stop saying ‘I think…’”  The intent wasn’t to get me to stop thinking for myself, but to get me to embrace the fact that my job wasn’t about “me,” it was about “us.”  Changing my thinking from being “an individual actor” to “a part of the collective” was critical in my professional development.  It changed everything about how I talk, to how I think about the system as a whole and what it will and will not respond to. I still say, “I think…” but I’m very strategic about it.  When I use the term, “I think…” I always end with, “what do you think?” or “does that resonate with you, am I off base?”

4. Stuff envelopes.

Never, ever pass up an opportunity to do something mind-deadening and soul-crushing. Over my career I tried to never say no.  Jumping from a low level director position, directly into the executives chair should not be your goal.  Your goal should be to do everything you possibly can in every department someone will let you into. The crappiest data entry, newsletter production, running 5,000 individual invitations off of a laser printer (yeah, I don’t really recommend that one – thank GOD we had some fans in the office to prevent it from bursting into flames), whatever crazy task comes your way.  The reason is, when you are the executive you know exactly how long it takes to stuff 5,000 envelopes.  Not only will it help you allocate tasks, and push back to the board when they start overloading your staff, it will also help you recognize stellar staff performance. (You will also know when someone is goldbricking because you KNOW some task shouldn’t have taken that long.)

5. We are all emerging professionals.

This is a real profession.  It is a unique and fascinating environment. However, the learning never stops. I still consider myself an emerging professional even after all of these years. I am continually learning from my peers and honing my craft. This, like the “legal practice” or “medical practice,” is a practice. I can learn as much from someone who has only been in this profession for two years as someone who has been around for twenty-five. Get your certifications – CAE, CMM, CMP, IOM (whichever ones apply to you) and establish yourself as a player.  But then don’t stop playing. There is exciting stuff just around the corner every single day.  Emerge and keep emerging.  We are all in this together.

Shelly Alcorn, CAE is obsessed with the idea that associations can make a significant difference in the world around us. Her consulting is focused on removing barriers, increasing participation and doing things that matter. She blogs at Association Subculture and is the host for the Association Forecast Show. She also travels and speaks on how things in our everyday lives, like video games and popular culture - impact our ability to lead in the workplace. These ain't your grandma's keynotes. Just sayin....