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10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming an Association Executive

Posted by Kathy Finley, CAE on Sep 20, 2017 1:30:00 PM


A career as an association executive is often something people fall into, without much thought to pre-planning and developing the unqiue skill sets needed for such a niche industry. If instead you're planning ahead, good for you! Here are the 10 things that I wish I had known when I started this journey. 

  1. Association executives need to be amateur psychologists. They need to understand people and interpret what they mean not by what they say but how they say it and how they act. All the management techniques don’t help a bit if you don’t understand people and understand they don’t always act the way you think they should. So, if you didn’t take a psychology course in college, I strongly suggest you take one before you move into association management.
  2. As an executive, the buck stops with you. So, even if someone else messed up, it’s still your fault. You hired them (or didn’t fire them), or in the case of board members, you didn’t inform them correctly (even if you did). Don’t take it personally or make excuses.
  3. Hire right from the start. Basically, as the leader of an association, it’s not what you do or how well you do it. It’s how well your staff does it. In the words of management guru Jim Collins, make sure “you have the right people on the bus.”
  4. There are going to be board members who don’t like you or you don’t like, and board presidents who are difficult to work with. Just remember, “This, too, will pass.”
  5. If you aren’t already a cat person, you might want to hang out with a few cat people because cat people have an advantage when running an association. “Herding cats” is not just a saying, it’s a job requirement and running an association is truly like herding cats. Don’t stress over that fact. Like any good cat owner knows, just accept it. The members and board aren’t always going to go in the right direction or even the same direction or in any direction!
  6. Learn how to be a good “poker player.” Don’t show your hand immediately. Study the situation. And then in the words of Kenny Rogers, “You have to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.” In other words, you should know when you need to abandon your position or to hold your ground.
  7. Some board members will have their own agendas. You can’t win by playing politics or playing one member against another. You just need to have a plan and when you have a new idea, make sure you come to a board meeting with all the facts so you can sell it. And if you are defeated, accept it or revise your plan. Don’t take it personally.
  8. Don’t put anything about a volunteer in writing unless you are comfortable with seeing what you wrote on the front page of the New York Times. Remember, what you put in email or post on the Internet (even on your private Facebook page) has an eternal life. Nothing lasts forever, except a posting on the Internet or in email.
  9. Balance your life. There is a rather trite saying about how people on their deathbeds never wish they had worked more. Spend time with family and friends. Get plenty of rest and exercise. Not only does this make you a better, less-stressed executive, but in 10 years after you’ve left your association (no matter how good you are), they probably will not remember who you are, let alone what you did for the association.
  10. And perhaps most importantly, a sense of humor is the best character trait you can possess. If you can’t laugh at yourself and your situation, don’t even think about accepting a leadership position in associations.


Topics: Learning, Leadership, Career, Association Executives, Association Management

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