We recently read a great article in Association magazine, Seasoned Association Leaders Share Leadership Lessons, which had several pieces of advice for the next generation of association leaders. High-level, their points were: relationships are key, use board advice for management matters, find a cause you’re passionate about, learn the intricacies of achieving balance in a not-for-profit organization, and it’s all about people.
It got us thinking – what have we learned as association leaders early on in our careers? Here are some lessons we’ve learned so far.
You will make mistakes.
In the association management world, this could be anything from minor errors on an e-marketing communication or missing a deadline for a board report, to something more significant like making a decision that leads to an unprojected deficit on your annual budget. While it is so important to know where to ask questions and get the information you need to prevent these types of things from happening, if you do make a mistake (and we all do, we’re only human), what matters is how you handle it.
How you handle a mistake speaks to your honesty and integrity. Learn how to approach the board, committee or other association representative to let them know, accept responsibility, and propose how to resolve it (or if possible, resolve it before you even approach them). It’s not worth trying to cover it up, and generally speaking they’ll appreciate that you were solution-oriented. Then, move on, internally and externally, and focus on your performance moving forward. On the bright side, chances are you will never repeat the same mistake again.
Don’t take things personally.
This can be hard to learn for many of us working in not-for-profit management, because 1) we work really hard, and 2) we care a lot. You may find yourselves investing tons of time into a particular project, being super proud of it, and yet receive a short, discouraging email from the board or committee member you’re working with as a response. In other cases, you may feel like you’re the target in an email where someone is looking to point the finger in a challenging situation, even though it may not have been your responsibility.
There is something to be said for learning to know when something is not your fault, even though a member or board member might be making you feel like it is. This may ring true for anyone working in customer service, because of the level of personal investment in our clients and the innate characteristic we have to want to please them. When they’re not happy, sometimes despite exceptional performance, you can’t help but feel like you’ve done something wrong.
It helps to remember who you’re working with: most of the groups we work with are all volunteers, working off the sides of their desks. They are likely the most passionate individuals in the industry, and are generally speaking an absolute pleasure to work with, but you are probably not their first priority; they may simply be trying to manage it all, while keeping a work-life balance. Learning how to communicate a response back to them to know they are being heard and supported, without being defensive or apologetic, is an important part of supporting volunteers in this environment.
How to handle being the youngest in the room.
At times, there is a disadvantage to being lumped in with the millennial stereotype. We can be labeled the ‘what’s in it for us’ (selfish) and 140-character attention span (unfocused) generation that care more about personal brands than the organizations we work with (disloyal). But, we’re also labeled as social media savvy, innovative, driven, and transparent. We have learned how to work the millennial stereotypes to our advantage by excelling in the areas that will drive organizations forward, because we believe that an organization’s mission is critical to ours. In doing so, we’re breaking the potentially negative perceptions of working with our generation.
Additionally, though there are some generational differences, what is more important to consider is learning how to be flexible and mirror the communication style of the group you’re working with. By being able to meet and exceed their standards in all respects, such as email communication, documentation, reporting and even professional dress, appearing to be the youngest (inexperienced) person around the table becomes a non-issue.
The value of networking.
This is something I wish I had learned much earlier in my career – at industry events, through professional associations and online. Early on, I never knew where/how/when to connect with other industry professionals or the value it could bring to an ever-changing industry, like association management.
It first started with the discovery of industry organizations that offered resources or professional development/networking events. CSAE, just as one example, has this amazing network of other association executives for members to tap into that are open and willing to share their experiences and lessons learned, because it’s all part of an exchange of information to advance the profession. Finding online resources was also a learning curve at first, because it is a matter of finding reliable sources communities to join. I also didn’t know how to effectively use LinkedIn and Twitter as a tool for personal and professional networking and marketing. Once I started learning more about the different ways to meet industry professionals and obtain professional development, I found the number of opportunities that began presenting themselves increased significantly – mentoring opportunities, invitations to attend industry events, opportunities to contribute to industry publications, and so forth.
Part of the beauty of what we do is that we are learning every single day. Looking forward to sharing more lessons learned!
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