Association Careers: It’s an Adventure!

Written by Lakisha Woods on September 27, 2016

When I was a kid, I remember seeing Army commercials on TV. Anyone could quote the tagline, “Army. Be all you can be.” While that message was everywhere, it didn’t translate into recruits. Their marketing was based on the belief that people would enlist because of the old adage: “it’s the right thing to do.” Then they realized that they were losing top recruits to companies that invested in selling the benefits of their organizations. So the Army worked with a professional ad agency to make the Army sound like the best option for the future. They made the big investment and it paid off. Recruiting skyrocketed! Later, when I was in college, I still saw military recruiters at the career fairs or making appointments with students to teach them that “it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure!”

I went to the business school at the University of Maryland College Park (UMCP), where recruiters from top consulting firms, tech firms, accounting firms and more came to fill their employment needs. Those companies hire professional recruiters because they recognize that without top talent, a company does not have long term strength. Smaller firms also benefited from the large company recruiting efforts, because if a student was not selected by a top accounting firm, they would look to a smaller one.

So, how did I end up with a career in associations? The same way everyone I’ve met did: by happy accident. I worked for a large advertising company right out of college and went back to UMCP’s alumni website to look for new opportunities. I knew I wasn’t meant to be a cold calling sales person and lucky for me, I saw a posting for a marketing job at the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA). I had no idea what that was, but I applied for that job along with jobs at other, bigger firms that I was more interested in. I received a call from NRMCA soon after and, while I was still hoping for a job at a bigger firm, I thought I may as well practice my interview skills. Come to find out, the job sounded great and that night I had an offer letter at the door. I was impressed with the fast response and thus began my career in associations.

Does your company recruit at colleges and universities? Does the association industry have curriculum or undergrad career path that students can select? In the 15 or so years since I started at NRMCA, I have worked at small, medium and large associations. I see the pluses and minuses of each type; the freedom or restrictions, the small or large budgets to layout big ideas and the active or passive volunteers that can support or crush you. Every industry and job has its good and bad, but the quality of employees we recruit are often based on how well we can sell it.

In other markets, a small company in a specific industry can still benefit from large company recruiting efforts. But in the association space, do our large companies recruit? Does the American Society of Association Executives recruit for the industry? We (and by we, I mean I) brought up this very topic at the last ASAE leadership retreat. The group does recognize the need to increase the pool of available talent in the association space. While they are not ready to set up recruiting tables at nearby colleges, they did launch a standalone website Association Career HQ.

As we look toward the future of associations and our ability to grow not just in size, but in quality offerings, I simply ask these questions:

  • Does your association sell the real benefits of not just joining as a member, but also as an employee? Can your staff articulate your benefits in six words or less?
  • Does your association review your website and social media and compare them to successful corporate models? People often determine whether or not they want to work for a company based on what they gather from its online presence.
  • What is your association culture? Do you have a flexible work environment? Does management still perceive someone tethered to a desk as a hard worker versus simply an online shopper? Or, do they judge based on the quality and timeliness of an employee’s work product?
  • Lastly, do you agree that the phrase “because we’ve always done it that way” should be eliminated from use in the office?

As we learned from the Army’s example, we can’t sit back and just hope that a sense of duty will convince quality people will join our organizations. We need to invest in showcasing the association industry as a great career path. We need to promote the adventure and possibilities that are available in this industry and be adaptable. It is a tremendous environment filled with the opportunity to make a difference in society, impact a community or rebuild an industry. Often, many associations focus their efforts and dollars on advocating for their industry on Capitol Hill. But remember: marketing the benefits of your organization to potential employees and the public is also critical. After all, no one is going to fight for your rights on the Hill if they don’t know you exist.