From the Corner Office

From the Corner Office: Beth Brooks, CAE, Texas Society of Association Executives

By Association Adviser staff • January 4, 2013

Association Adviser: Beth, tell us a little bit about TSAE.

Beth Brooks: We’ve been around since 1928 (since 1956 under our current name) and serve more than 1,000 association professionals who represent Texas-based associations and societies, as well as their service providers and suppliers. Members range from CEOs and membership directors to marketing and communication people. We also serve many international associations who have offices in Texas.

AA: How has membership fared up during this tough economy?

BB: Membership’s held steady throughout the economic downturn. Even though Texas hasn’t been hit as hard as many other parts of the country, we put an awful lot of work into retaining membership. Fortunately it’s paid off. I’ll get to that in a minute.

  • You can’t underestimate the power of meeting members in person, learning about their office culture and making their jobs easier.
  • Great association leaders are effective communicators, transparent about their finances and deeply cognizant of their board’s goals.
  • One of the best things SAEs can do for members is let them know, “You’re not in it alone.”
  • Pay close attention to demographic and technological changes. If you don’t, you may not have an association much longer.

AA: How did you get into the association profession?

BB: I lucked into my first job with the Texas Dental Association after graduating from college. Within a month, I knew that I loved the variety and the members, but I really had no idea what a complex business associations were. I was at the nation’s third largest dental association, and I don’t think I really understood the whole picture until I studied for my CAE.

AA: And now you’re running one of the larger state societies of association executives?

BB: {laughing} It took a few years to get there. At the dental association, I started in public relations and eventually worked my way up to communications director. In that role, I really had to sharpen my multitasking skills since was overseeing a large staff, plus all of our meetings, publications and membership efforts. That kind of broad-based leadership equipped me well to be an executive director, first for the Texas Pest Control Association, then at TSAE, which I joined 11 years ago.

AA: Was it hard to go from running a traditional member association to running an association for association executives?

BB: I got to know TSAE as a board member first. That helped, but it still wasn’t easy when I first came on board. Things were in decline. We were down to about 400 members and had about $20,000 left in the till. Staffing had dropped from 11 to two, and morale was low, as you might expect.

In order to keep the doors open, we reached out and called members for help. We obtained $75,000 and slowly started getting things turned around. We introduced the Toastmasters (public speaking and leadership training) program for members and then the Lunch & Learn sessions focusing on best practices. It’s been a lot of reaching out and talking directly to members. That has probably been the biggest catalyst.

AA: Speaking of your members, what are their biggest issues?

BB: Three things. Membership, technology and HR. Our associations have a lot more competition from private companies for the attention of their members. They also need to get better at segmenting their membership universe so they can customize offerings more efficiently for each member. Older members are retiring, and the associations we serve are not connecting with younger members.

In terms of technology, they’re all asking, “How do I keep up with all the changes in mobile apps, social media and member databases?”

Third is HR. They all want to know how they can keep morale up when they’re laying off staff, freezing salaries and asking a smaller number of people to handle more and more work.

AA: Going back to technology, can you tell us about TSAE’s forays into mobile and social media?

BB: The mobile app that Naylor developed for our annual conference has been very popular with attendees. I love the personal scheduling feature and the speaker contact info. I also love the immediacy of FacebookLinkedIn and especially Twitter. We’re also looking into developing our own private community platform.

AA: What’s the key to recruiting and retaining members?

BB: Show ‘em you get it. We know how busy they are. We want them to know they’re not in it all alone. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time a new challenge or assignment comes up. We have great templates, best practices, how-to articles and RFP guides that they can use any time to solve a problem or bid for new business. Our new website will make it easier to find these resources. But a TSAE membership also gives you access to a great group of people who know exactly what you’re going through. They’re very generous and willing to help. That’s probably our biggest member benefit.

AA: You remain a strong advocate of face-to-face interaction, even in this digital age.

BB: True, and perhaps more so than before. It’s all about reaching out and touching someone. I answer the phones. I make member outreach calls myself. I meet personally with two members every month—at their offices. I just ask for 20 minutes of their time. Sure, I could do it by phone or invite them here to our building. But, it’s important to see members on their home turf and get a feel for what their culture is like. I keep a log of each member organization’s culture.

AA: What have you learned from your one-on-one visits that you might not have learned from a survey, focus group or online forum?

BB: It boils down to four things: 1) They don’t know about us; 2) People are busier than ever—they don’t have time for anything that’s not 100 percent relevant to them; 3) They don’t know what they don’t know; and 4) They’re certainly not reading all the emails we’re sending.

AA: How do you tackle the “don’t know what they don’t know”conundrum?

BB: It’s about making members aware of everything they need to know in order to run an effective organization. For example, you may be a great engineer, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify you to run an engineering society. Members look to us for industry standards and best practices are. For example, when they come to our annual convention, they not only get great networking and presentations; they get to see how you run a meeting correctly. Everything from the registration desk and materials, to how you introduce speakers, to how you set the agenda and how you run the social events.

AA: What are the most important skills for today’s association leaders to master?

BB: Three things: 1) Understand the board; 2) Be transparent about your finances; and 3) Be an effective communicator.

AA: Can you elaborate on those skills?

BB: When it comes to the board, you really have to understand their goals and whether or not you’re delivering them. With finance, it’s important that every member and staff person sees exactly how your money’s being spent. As for communication, it’s essential to write and speak effectively. Not everything can be communicated in short text bursts.

AA: How about your hiring practices?

BB: One thing we might do differently from other organizations is test people out during the hiring process. If they say they’ve been a receptionist before, we really like to see how they make and receive phone calls. If someone claims to have a writing or communications background, we give them four minutes to write a critique of or member magazine. Is their critique forthright? Are you going to tell me what I need to hear, or what you think I want to hear?

AA: Sounds like things are going pretty well. What’s keeping you up at night?

BB: Simple. We need more members. We also have to get board members more engaged with potential members. We need a leadership plan for future leaders. And we’re still grappling with our social media standards since our forums are un-moderated.

AA: Any other takeaways for our readers?

BB: Yes. Read Harrison Coerver’s book, The Race for Relevance. You really need to be aware of how profoundly technology and demographics are changing associations. If you’re not paying attention to those changes, you won’t have an association for much longer.