Association Career Paths

By Hank Berkowitz • June 27, 2013

Hank Berkowitz
Hank Berkowitz, Naylor

The legendary Walt Disney once said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

Disney didn’t know it at the time, but he was laying out the blueprint for a modern association executive. But, is there really such a thing as a career path in a world where serendipity seems to be the rule, rather than the exception? Christopher Williston VI, whom you’ll meet in this month’s Corner Office profile, is a third-generation association professional. But, even he took a fairly circuitous route to his role as vice president of communications for the Independent Bankers Association of Texas (IBAT). But that’s starting to change.



  • Prior industry experience is not as important as having a deep understanding of your industry’s key issues, key players and technical experts.
  • If you’re coming from the corporate world, you need to check your ego at the door and adjust to a decentralized decision-making process that may find you with many bosses and “masters.”
  • Pay alone isn’t the whole story. You also have to look at benefits, quality of life, the ability to make a difference and the opportunity to turn your ideas into reality.
  • Successful association candidates tend to have great people skills, positive attitudes, good business instincts and a customer-service mindset.

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Karl Kirsch
Karl Kirsch, CAE, VP of Meeting Expectations

Karl Kirsch, CAE, vice president of Meeting Expectations, a meeting planning and association management company, said most of his contemporaries never intended to go into the association world when they were coming up the ranks. But now, there’s better awareness of association management as a career, especially at the [collegiate] level. Some people think association careers are pretty random, “but we’re very deliberate here about steering our talent into five distinct paths and helping them excel at communications and PR, membership marketing, business development and sponsorship, education or association management.”

Gabriel Eckert, BOMA Georgia

Gabriel Eckert, CAE, a former agricultural journalist who heads The Building Owners and Managers Association of Georgia(BOMA), said the Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential has done a great deal to raise awareness of a defined career path in association management. Thanks to CAE and the nine domain areas it includes, “for example, I have a journalism and marketing background, and my first job was as a communications specialist in an association. I didn’t necessarily plan to stay in the association world at first, but once I started working in the field and found out about the CAE, and about some of the skills required, it helped me to understand how I fit into the profession of association management, and that opened a whole new career path for me.”

Jim Fowler, CAE, VP of Kellen Company

“There’s a deliberate path in association management even though it may not be as evident as it is in other industries,” explained Jim Fowler, CAE, vice president of association management company, Kellen Company. “Over the years, I’ve seen entry level staff associates and communications specialists grow in stature and responsibility to membership and marketing directors, and on to associate and executive director positions,” added Fowler, who also serves as executive vice president of the Research Chefs Association.

Best things about association work

“You get to work with the best and brightest people in an industry” and help improve the industry you represent, related Eckert. Kirsch agreed that associations tend to attract the standouts in the industries they serve. Those people are “successful for a reason. You can learn from them. You can build a better network working for an association than you can after 10 years working at Company X.”

According to Fowler, association work allows you to make a difference in the professional lives of members by providing relevant continuing education, mentorship programming and effective advocacy. IBAT’s Williston said association work is fun, diverse and allows you to bring all your many “gifts to the table.” Your voice will be heard your efforts will be appreciated and you’ll get immediate feedback from your members, he added.

See also: Gavin Pommernelle shares tips for prioritizing your time, Elsbeth Russell helps you communicate more effectively with your members, and Janet Frank shares insights about bolstering your relationships with advertisers, sponsors and industry suppliers.

Skills for success

What particular skills and attributes do associations look for when hiring? Fowler said candidates must be great communicators. They must have “overly positive attitudes.” They must also possess good business instincts, have good people skills and be totally customer service driven.” Eckert looks for technical competence and the ability to fit into the culture of the organization. “By technical competence, I mean if they want to be a communications director or meeting professional, can they do the job? By culture, I mean do they buy into the fabric of what the association is all about?”

At the end of the day “we’re in the relationship business,” related Kirsch. “Once we’re sure a candidate has the technical skills to do the job, we’re looking for people that our staff (and clients) will really enjoy working with.”

Association pay

When it comes to the touchy subject of employee compensation, Eckert said it varies by association, but “pay alone is a limited way of looking at it.” He said one also has to look at employee benefits, the quality of life, the ability to make a difference and the opportunity to help others turn their ideas into action. “One of the most important benefits of working in association management is having the ability to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in the industry or profession the association represents. For Generation Y, a big part of job satisfaction is being authentic, being part of a community.”

We carefully monitor what other associations are paying, said Meeting Expectations’ Kirsch. “You have to pay people right or they’re going to leave. Our pay is average, but our benefits are awesome.”

Importance of industry experience

Many of the experts we contacted said you don’t need to be an industry veteran to have a successful career at an industry association. What you do need, according to Kirsch, is the ability to learn all you can about the industry you’re serving, what the key issues are, who the key players are and which technical experts can you tap. “In fact, we’ve had some classic ‘fails’ here by bring someone in with lots of industry experience and contacts, but they didn’t know how to run a small business or association.”

According to BOMA Georgia’s Eckert, if your competence is in association management, then your skills are relevant. You don’t have to be an expert in the industry the association represents. Let your members be the technical experts in the industry and leverage their knowledge, he advised. How? By asking “powerful questions that open the dialogue about what the future will look like and LISTEN to the answers.”

Importance of youth

Does having a young-looking CEO make it easier for associations to recruit an industry’s up and comers?

Eckert, 36, has been at the helm of BOMA Georgia for nearly seven years and said his youth has not been a factor in the organization’s double-digit membership growth. During the start of the recession in 2007, he and the board of directors collaboratively found out what members and potential members really wanted out of the association. “The single most important factor in recruiting new BOMA members has been the ability of our board of directors to create a strong vision for the organization. The key to our success was in understanding what our members really want from BOMA, in creating value for them; value not just for our current members, but for prospective members as well,” he said.

Transitioning from the corporate world

Associations have always seen a great number of corporate transplants, perhaps even more so in this tough job market. Is the transition easy? Generally no, and Kirsch said one of the most important things you can do from Day One is check your ego at the door.

“It’s not about having one boss, but about having many masters to answer to.” Fowler agreed: “It’s having additional layers of management that comes with reporting to boards of directors, executive committees, etc. That’s a definite adjustment for some.” According to Eckert, you have to learn that decision-making is more collaborative in the association world. It’s “decentralized decision-making, not top-down like in the corporate world. It’s not ‘I,’ it’s ‘we.’”

Kirsch said you also have to understand that association work is not all fun conventions, travel and schmoozing with volunteers. “In reality it’s a lot of work. It’s also a career path like any other that demands continuous learning and striving for perfection.”


As Disney once quipped: “You can design, create and build the most wonderful place in the world. But, it takes people to make the dream a reality.” Kirsch agreed. “Let’s say you come up with a great idea. In the corporate world, you get to own it. In the association world, you have to get used to your staff and volunteers saying, ‘Look at the great idea WE came up with!’”

There may be no single roadmap for success in the association world, but the more people you know, the more you can collaborate, the more good questions you can ask and the more skills you can bring to the table, the better your chances of making it to the front of the line. Just be ready to share your seat.
Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews.