Trade Route: How to Build Your Association Career Path

Career paths at associations aren’t always clearly defined. But young professionals who want to stay the course can pave their own way with solid strategies they can use at every point along the way.

If you put a bunch of young association professionals together in a room and asked them how they got their jobs, chances are most—if not all—would say they fell into their positions and didn’t necessarily set out to work at an association when they graduated from college.

But not Lauren Hefner. “I always knew that I wanted to work in the association world,” says the director of communications for the National Grocers Association (NGA). And at 30, she’s already worked at four associations, starting when she was in college, helping out at the American Sociological Association—her mom’s workplace—during summer vacations and other school breaks.

Justin Goldstein’s route to the association world is likely more typical: “I saw an ad for a job at the Printing Industries of America (PIA), and I applied for it.” He had recently graduated from college, and he wanted to move back to the Pittsburgh area, so the job fit the bill. Seven years later, Goldstein has made his way up the career ladder at PIA and is now director of member services. His ultimate goal? “To be an association CEO,” he says.

Whether they come to it by chance or by design, an association job can help young professionals build skills that will easily adapt to other nonprofits or for-profit companies. But for those who envision a career in the association world, the opportunities are even greater. After all, there’s an association for everything, and they are all over the United States.

Raise Your Hand

The beauty of an association is that it is its own business entity that is also supporting organizations or individuals of a particular industry. It’s a dual learning curve: You need to understand the industry you are representing and the workings of your association. There’s so much to take in—and the onus is on you to do it.

“Young professionals need to take charge of their careers,” says Marshall Brown, president of the career counseling firm Marshall Brown and Associates. “They can’t wait for someone to tell them to get involved with this organization or join that group. They need to seek out opportunities to develop themselves.”

Angie Pappas, communications manager with the California Restaurant Association, provides a perfect example of this self-starter attitude. When CRA hired Pappas in 2008, she was coming from a writing and editing position at The Sacramento Bee, and the association position was similar. “I came on to take on a magazine and our newsletter,” she says. “It was straightforward communications work.”

But as time went on, she involved herself more in public affairs. “We had a director of public affairs who was very policy oriented, but he didn’t know about trends or what was happening in the restaurant world. He couldn’t tell you who Mario Batali was,” she says. With her work on the newsletter and magazine, Pappas was well versed in the industry’s issues and personalities. So, the public affairs director started looking to her to take over the trend-related and feature-story media calls.

“When he left, it was a natural thing that I took over all of [public affairs], and I was happy about that,” Pappas says. It was natural because of her own initiative. “It was something that I proactively did. I started sitting in on the press calls and writing up talking points.”

Pappas now serves as the media contact and spokesperson for the association. “Restaurants are fun,” she says with a laugh. She’s still learning and growing in her position, but it’s also her passion for the work of the association that’s keeping her there.

Goldstein and Pappas have had room to grow at their associations, but that’s not always the case, particularly at smaller organizations. However, “regardless of the size of the organization, you can still develop your skills,” Brown says. “You can take classes, you can get your CAE credential.” (See “Understanding the CAE” at right for more about the certification.) He also recommends writing articles and attending conferences whenever possible. “It’s about getting your name out there and developing your brand.”

Hefner, who has her CAE and is currently getting her master’s degree in public administration, has been volunteering to present at ASAE events for the last few years. She has this advice for others looking to advance: “Don’t be afraid to be the youngest person in the room. All organizations need new blood. We all often have the same 4 percent of people involved.”

Don’t be afraid to be the youngest person in the room. All organizations need new blood.

Learn the Core Competencies

Even if you can see yourself staying in the association world, you might not share Goldstein’s aspiration to become a CEO. Hefner, for example, says she doesn’t want to go that route. She sees herself eventually consulting for associations.

But if you do envision yourself as a vice president or CEO, you need to learn the core competencies of associations: marketing, membership, and governance, says Brown. “Learn the breadth of association management instead of just one specific area.” Or, if you find yourself at an association whose mission ignites your passions, learn as much as you can about that industry.

Bryan Harrison, senior manager of councils for the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade association for car and truck enthusiasts, first heard about SEMA as a kid; he read an industry magazine article about the amazing cars displayed at SEMA’s tradeshow. As president of an organization focused on reducing illegal street racing, he had heard about SEMA’s Racers Against Street Racing program and met key members of the SEMA staff. “My strong automotive background and association management experience was a great fit for the position,” he says.

He sees himself staying in the automotive industry, since it is also a personal passion. “Knowing and seeing that my work helps others succeed in an industry I deeply love is a great feeling,” he says.

It’s not just who you know but who knows you.

Network for Advancement

Developing a network is important in any profession. But in the association world, where there is so much opportunity to advance if you are willing to move to another association, it’s critical. “It’s not just who you know but who knows you,” says Brown. He suggests getting on the board of your local association group. “You are meeting other professionals who will make suggestions to you. That’s one of the nice things about associations: For the most part, people are willing to help each other,” he says. Case in point: Hefner found out about her current job at NGA while volunteering with ASAE.

Finding a senior-level mentor—or two—to help navigate next steps is also key to networking. Goldstein has had one at his association and another outside PIA. His association mentor, his former boss, taught him the ropes of the association world. “She helped me get acclimated and taught me about meeting planning, board relations, and how to get speakers,” he says.

And don’t be afraid to think big when searching for a mentor. After meeting then-ASAE Foundation Chair and American Industrial Hygiene Association Executive Director Peter O’Neil, FASAE, CAE, at an ASAE conference, Hefner emailed him to see if he would suggest a mentor for her. He offered up himself and she gladly accepted. “He’s taught me not to lose myself, not to be afraid to have fun even while you are being a leader,” she says.

Pappas hasn’t yet sought a formal mentor, but she gets career advice from a senior staff member at CRA. When she was mulling over an opportunity at a high-profile association, she asked him about it. “He told me, ‘That’s like going to play for the Yankees. Are you ready for that?’ Ever since then, when I’ve thought about doing something else or another job at CRA, I think, ‘Well, no, that’s not the Yankees.’ I do want to play for the Yankees. I’m just waiting for the right thing.”

For now, Pappas is happy where she is, still growing and with the flexibility to take on new opportunities. But eventually, it will be time to move on. “I know that there’s a lot of opportunity out there,” she says, “and I know that I’ll be able to take what I’ve learned anywhere and serve them well.”

(photo by Toby Pederson)

Gayle Bennett

By Gayle Bennett

Gayle Bennett has written for the magazines of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, the IDEA Health and Fitness Association, and the Council for Residential Specialists. MORE

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