Leadership

Lessons From 25 Years at One Association

By / May 5, 2019 (mattjeacock/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Catherine Prather has worked at the National Tour Association for 25 years. Soon she will take on the CEO role. As she prepares, she shares some of the steps that got her there.

When Catherine Prather joined the staff of the National Tour Association in 1994, she was the quintessential person who “just fell into” association management. She had worked as a press secretary and business journalist in Kentucky, and NTA seemed like an intriguing new venue for her writing. “I just felt like I was ready for a change,” she says. “Of course I knew about associations, but didn’t know that it was a career path for me at all.”

Twenty-five years later, she’s preparing to run the place: Next year, she’ll formally become NTA’s CEO. Long tenures at one workplace are rare—according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median stint in U.S. professional jobs is 5.5 years—and culturally we consider them a little suspect. Doesn’t staying in one place suggest a failure to change? Are such employees operating in a bubble that keeps them from professional growth?

I was opened up to people and members and stories and learning about people around the world.

Prather’s story suggests the opposite: that with a certain tenacity and open-mindedness, employees can evolve into valued members of a staff, to the point where they’re qualified for top leadership. Below are five lessons that Prather shared about her experience as she climbed NTA’s ladder.

  1. Be interested in everything. Prather says she had no particular leadership ambitions when she started at NTA, which serves tour operators and travel planners that conduct business globally. But her journalistic temperament helped her quickly grasp the association’s business and got her more involved in NTA’s mission. “I think more than anything, I’m innately curious,” she says. “At NTA, I was opened up to people and members and stories and learning about people around the world. I was exposed to different cultures, different people, new thinking.”
  2. Wear many hats (but don’t feel like you have to wear all of them). All told, Prather has held six jobs at NTA, and she first schooled herself in the association by expanding her repertoire in its communications department: writing, public relations, marcomm. Staying within that area allowed her to understand how the association worked without spreading herself too thin. “I stayed in the marketing and communications realm, and that’s where it kept expanding,” she says. “Then I started taking on other things such as research and education.”
  3. Recognize and embrace opportunities to lead. As it was for countless industries, 9/11 was a transformative moment—especially so for NTA members, who work in international travel. By then, Prather was leading a communications team, and she took the experience as a call to do more. “That really crystallized what I wanted to do, seeing how important and critical an association could be in helping its members weather an unbelievable crisis like that,” she says.
  4. Know when you’re ready. In 2014, Prather served for eight months as interim CEO but passed on taking the reins permanently—she believed NTA could benefit from new ideas coming from outside the organization. Five years later, when the opportunity came again, she felt that she and the association were better matched. “I think that the association is in a place where it will definitely be best served by continuity,” she says.
  5. Don’t be too impressed with your institutional memory. Prather has the benefit of plenty of experience at NTA, but she’s mindful that how the organization used to do things isn’t a map for what it should do next. “One of the most challenging impulse reactions is to instantly answer someone’s question when they ask how I think something should be handled based on history or my perspective,” she says. “I make it a point in most cases to ask my colleague for his or her opinion before I respond. To me, this allows someone to grow and perhaps stretch out of a comfort zone, but it also ensures that new thinking can flourish.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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