How many of us grow up dreaming about belonging to one profession, only to change course once we realize what we really want out of a career? Alesa McArthur, MBA, CMP grew up intending to be a lawyer, but upon graduating college realized she would rather work in the corporate world. After several years in sales, however, she transitioned into association management and has enjoyed the creativity, flexibility and hospitality the industry offers. In her words, “I hope I’m at NAEC for a long time!”
We spoke with Alesa about the career path that has led her to the executive director position at the National Association of Elevator Contractors, a national organization with international reach. She explains how she began working for NAEC part-time before a conversation began with the previous executive director about the possibility of succeeding her, then spending 10 months successfully transitioning into the executive director role.
We also explore her fresh approach to association management: “We’ve always done it that way” is probably not a phrase in her dictionary. She describes how the challenges of managing staff and a fluid membership fulfills her desire to meet those challenges with creative solutions, and how she balances working remotely, and in the office, while meeting members around the country to build productive relationships with the NAEC board and membership.
Association Adviser: Welcome to the Corner Office! Tell us about your professional background.
Alesa McArthur, MBA, CMP: I’ve been working with associations since 2005, but I started in the big corporate world, specifically for a small apparel company and then in medical sales. I worked for a large corporation selling medical devices to physicians in hospitals for six years, and during that job I realized that while working in corporate sounded great, I hated it. Everything involved a lot of paperwork, especially when you worked remotely as I did. The paper trail was somewhat necessary for my supervisors so they could see I was fulfilling my role, but I felt like Big Brother was watching me.
There was also nothing creative about selling medical devices, and I craved more creativity in my professional life. With my previous apparel sales job, as long as I met my sales goal numbers, my company didn’t mind how I pitched the clothing or how I assembled outfits for sales presentations. I loved that professional freedom. The memorized sales pitches required for medical presentations just wasn’t a fit for me.
AA: How did you find your way into association work?
AM: So I transitioned into catering and events management, which I enjoyed very much because I had plenty of opportunities to be creative with my clients and their events. But after my son, who needed me nights and weekends, came along the endless evening and weekend events were difficult and helped me to realize that I needed another career change. The change came when I was having lunch with a friend and colleague who asked how my job was going. Normally, in casual conversation, people respond with something passive like, “Oh, it’s fine! I like my job.” But I decided to be upfront and said, “I desperately need a change!” She sympathized with me, and mentioned that she knew someone at the Georgia Academy of Family Physicians who wanted help with meeting planning and related work. I interviewed with the executive director, and joined their staff soon after.
We worked well together, and I thoroughly enjoyed putting together events, among other duties, for their membership. I also liked that, because I was part of a smaller staff that could be nimble, I was able to work on other association projects in communications, marketing, membership, and so on. I had the flexibility to keep challenging myself and the ability to be as creative as I wanted.
AA: You earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Georgia. What did you plan on doing in that field?
AM: Growing up, I wanted to be a corporate attorney. But the summer between my senior year and the beginning of law school, which was to start that fall, my dad (who studied but doesn’t practice law) and I had some discussions about why I wanted to be an attorney. I realized that law school might not be the best investment. So I decided to go to graduate school instead. I moved to Atlanta and earned a master’s in business administration from Georgia State University.
Getting an MBA was a really good move for me. I studied and completed group projects with people who had prior and current business jobs. Considering I had no real business experience yet, I was lucky to learn from them as much as I learned from my textbooks.
Even though I later decided I didn’t want to work in the corporate world, as most MBA graduates do, my MBA and corporate experience have opened several doors for me. The executive director at the Georgia Academy of Family Physicians liked that I had experience relating to physicians in a collegial way thanks to my previous medical position. Then later, when teaching meetings management classes at UGA’s Terry College of Business campus in Gwinnett County (GA) after earning my Certified Meeting Planner (CMP) designation, I mentioned to another colleague that I was looking for more part-time work. She connected me with the National Association of Elevator Contractors, and I became their part time meeting planner.
AA: So you were working part time for the Georgia Academy of Family Physicians and NAEC?
AM: Yes. I was working for the Academy as their chief operating officer as well as with a couple of other companies assisting with sporadic events. In addition, I was contracted with a marketing company that works with many businesses as a third-party resource, including managing a very large conference in Las Vegas, and I was also the executive director for a dermatological foundation. I did that work nights and weekends.
As the part-time planner for NAEC working on my first event, their annual convention and tradeshow in Orlando in September 2017, Hurricane Irma was also heading in the same direction, and made landfall the same day our convention was supposed to happen. Because we couldn’t cancel our meeting – NAEC members were depending on it – I, and all of our team, spent two weeks working non-stop to move the meeting to Atlantic City, NJ. We made the meeting happen, but afterwards I realized that this position was a lot of work and I was interested in more.
Coincidentally, the executive director was looking to transition out of her role, and after a series of conversations, we realized that this could potentially become a much larger job than it currently was. At this time, I transitioned from the full-time job at the Academy to a full-time remote position for NAEC.
I eventually transitioned into the role of deputy director, and the search committee that NAEC had convened to find a replacement for the ED role interviewed me for the job. They recommended me for the position, the NAEC board voted to hire me in April 2018, and I began training to take over.
AA: What was your transition to the executive director position like?
AM: I shadowed the now former executive director for 10 months. I spent those months getting to know NAEC’s membership better and ramping up on my boss’s duties. It went smoothly.
In February 2019, we flip-flopped our positions: She became deputy director, where she still serves in an advisory role to me, and I became the executive director. She has been really helpful to me – she helps with managing our staff when I’m traveling, helps with office work that doesn’t fall squarely into anyone’s job responsibilities but still needs to be done, keeps up with our staff calendar, and more. She says that she loves still being able to make a difference!
I’m enjoying the challenge of this new position. I love meeting our members (we have approximately 750 company members), working with the staff I’ve gotten to know over the past three years, and helping to interview individuals for open positions. I think we have a good, long future of continuing to do the things that are working for us while implementing new ideas from members.
AA: You served for three years on the board of the Green Meetings Industry Council Atlanta chapter, and two years as their treasurer. What motivated you to become involved with GMIC?
AM: Having grown up on a farm in middle Georgia, recycling and responsibly using resources is important to me. I saw a lot of waste in meeting planning and execution, and wanted to help drive more sustainable practices. When that group was formed in Atlanta, I thought getting involved would be a good thing to do. Soon after I joined, they asked me to be on the board and because of my financial background, I served as treasurer.
AA: What do meeting planners mean when they talk about sustainability practices?
AM: To me, sustainability means cutting down on waste while making it physically and financially easy for the customer to choose real options. When I worked in catering, we would build the price of renting our dishes and silverware into the overall price, but we would charge separately to provide paper and plastic items as they cost more for us to bring in. In hotels, you see sustainability efforts manifest themselves as asking guests to reuse their towels and not have their sheets changed every day, or providing glasses and water pitchers instead of stocking a room with plastic water bottles. Make it easy to choose real options.
As a meeting planner, sustainability also means making it easy for attendees to choose reusable goods like coffee mugs over paper or plastic cups. Some groups make a point of holding meetings at ‘green,’ LEED-certified hotels or offering attendees ways to offset their carbon emissions traveling to and from the event. A big part of meeting sustainability is trying to cut down on food waste. There are several organizations that will now work with your event to collect un-served food that has been properly kept (meaning, extra food that has not been set out, refrigerated consistently, stored in closed containers) and transfer it to places like homeless shelters or crisis centers. This way, the food isn’t wasted and nonprofits get help meeting the needs of their clients.
A related trend of responsible meetings that I admire, though it doesn’t necessarily relate to sustainability, is the trend of finding nonprofit partners local to where a meeting is hosted and coming up with ways to benefit that nonprofit. During our 70th Annual Convention and Expo in Grand Rapids, Michigan in September this year, we teamed up with HQ, a drop-in center for youth experiencing unsafe or unstable housing. By selling fun name tag ribbons and soliciting donations from our generous board members, we raised nearly $3,000 for HQ! This year’s fundraising was more successful than any fundraiser in recent NAEC history. Plus, some of our convention attendees live in or near Grand Rapids. Now that they’ve been introduced to HQ through our convention, they might decide to check it out in person and start volunteering or fundraising for HQ in some capacity. Our members are generous and kind people, and we believe in this trickle-down effect of social responsibility.
AA: You work remotely part-time. How do you manage to maintain relationships with your staff, board and members?
AM: I love that I can work remotely from time to time because it offers flexibility, particularly when children are involved. Most NAEC members don’t live near our main office, anyway. And you can do everything that’s needed from a computer, except meet people! Which is why I make a point of traveling to attend as many member gatherings and industry events as I can as well as being in the office at least two days a week when I am not traveling. I love when members share their ideas for the association’s programming and direction, whether I’m at an appointment in their office or see them at a conference or convention. I try to always take notes regarding their input, and I have notes scrawled on everything from bank deposit slips to actual notepads as well as notes typed into my phone. Whatever is handy works!
Recently, I let my son get a dog, so now I have an excuse to get out of my house and exercise on those days I work from home while he is at school! Otherwise, I would never stop for lunch!
My staff and I interact multiple times per day through online networking tools and email. We have staff meetings and conference calls, but we’re just as likely to do it over online resources, such as Skype, as in person. Our board members live all over the country as well, so we have become proficient at using online meeting and chat tools to stay in close communication.
AA: In terms of your job, what keeps you up at night?
AM: I want our staff to thrive, so when we have staff issues that stress them, that keeps me up. Recently, we’ve had a few staffing changes, as naturally happens as people’s careers grow and their needs change, there’s going to be a transition as everyone gets used to a new team member’s style. In addition, I have a different style than the former ED. That’s okay, but I want to keep our staff interested and engaged in our work as much as possible.
So we’re shifting some duties among existing staff to keep everyone engaged. If there’s a gap in necessary work coverage, we’ll hire someone additional. However, the nice thing about associations is that it’s easy to transition job duties among people to take advantage of their varied skills sets. You can more easily be nimble with a small staff. If I have a hole I need to fill that doesn’t fit current job roles, I can make a new job role. That would never happen (at least, not as quickly as it’s needed) in the corporate world.
I’m enjoy strategic thinking and putting pieces together. I hope I’m at NAEC for a long time!