How to Successfully Navigate an Association Career Path

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

By Hank Berkowitz

As ancient Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger once said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” While many association heads say they just “fell into” their roles, most have actually been more deliberate.

Beau Ballinger, certification programs manager at IMCA the Investment Management Consultants Association, and a graduate of the ASAE Young Leadership Academy, said, “Our work supported the idea that many do fall into the association profession, but they become enamored and impassioned by it and decide to make a career out of it.”

  • Successful association leaders surround themselves with “can-do people” who find ways to get things done with modest resources.
  • Associations are more than twice as likely as for-profit organizations to offer flex-time, telecommuting, and other work/life balance perks.
  • The not-for-profit world is a great way to have a fulfilling career in a field you love.

Like high-performing leaders in the corporate and government sectors, association leaders are comfortable articulating their vision to members, staff, volunteers, and boards on short notice. They also are excellent communicators and listeners who move quickly from one challenge to the next. They tend to surround themselves with what Phil Russo, executive director of NAFA Fleet Management Association, calls “can-do people who don’t complain about why things won’t work or why they don’t have enough resources.”

Let’s Look at the Numbers

According to an ASAE CareerHQ.org report, young professionals emphasize work/life balance and flexibility in benefits and rewards, differing from previous generations that placed a higher priority on policy and hierarchy. That bodes well for associations: Research from Association Forum of Chicagoland found that 59 percent of associations provided flex-time scheduling, more than twice the rate (25 percent) found in the for-profit world. Similarly, 21.1 percent of associations offer telecommuting to employees, as opposed to 10 percent among for-profit organizations.

Advice for Young People

“My advice to new grads or those looking for a new career path is that the non-profit world is a great way to have a career in the field you love,” related Russo. “Working for a non-profit is rewarding in and of itself because you are doing something for the good of the industry or profession, and not necessarily motivated only by profit,” he said.

For more on association career trends, see Tim McNichols’ article in today’s issue.

Best Available Athlete

With so many candidates to choose from in today’s tough job market, many organizations get bogged down by multiple interviewers who want every box checked before committing to a candidate, explained Ed Koller, managing partner of Howard-Sloan-Koller Group, a New York-based executive search firm for corporations and not-for-profit organizations. “Smart organizations are opting for a ‘best athlete available’ approach,” he said. “Rather than focus on the specifications, clients should focus on those who can pivot easily across all functions in a fast-changing landscape. They’re also the strategists who can get stuff done.”

Communication and Listening Skills

Henry Chamberlain, president & COO of Building Owners & Managers Association (BOMA), considers himself a “classic PR and marketing guy” who began his career in Washington, D.C., working in the press office of the Carter/Mondale presidential campaign and managing accounts for two public relations firms. After serving as communications director for Gannett Company during the launch phase of USA Today, he signed on with BOMA in 1985, holding a variety of roles until being promoted to president in 2001.

Gus Edwards, executive vice president of National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA), covered government and politics for a city daily newspaper before being lured to Capitol Hill. “My plan was to use that experience as a springboard back into journalism,” he explained recently. “But, I ended up staying on the Hill for 12 years, serving as a chief of staff in both the House and the Senate. From there I worked in two presidential administrations before going to a major D.C. consulting firm. In 1997, I joined the staff of the National Stone Association as head of communications. In 2000, the National Stone Association and the National Aggregates Association merged to become NSSGA, and I continued in the communications slot until 2008, when I became executive vice president.”

Entrepreneurial Instincts

Reggie Henry, CIO of ASAE The Center for Association Leadership, graduated from Georgetown University with degrees in economics and computer science, but he was “really hell-bent” on becoming a lawyer. However, after graduating he landed a job in the consulting division of Coopers & Lybrand and got to see firsthand the power of information. “That experience led to a position at a strategic planning firm before starting my own technology consulting firm developing an association management software (AMS) product,” he said. “Later, I held senior technology roles at several other associations before becoming CIO at ASAE. I guess you could say I’ve been working with (or for) non-profit organizations since 1985.”

Margaret Cervarich, VP for communication and public affairs of the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA), held several communications and public affairs positions early in her career, including running her own firm that had a number of clients in the transportation industry, which smoothed her path to the helm of NAPA.

Wendy Kavanagh, president of Georgia Society of Association Executives, also had her own firm—an association management company—before taking over the reins of GSAE. “I have both an entrepreneurial and not-for-profit background, and this job lets me take advantage of that mix,” she said. “I’ve been the president here since 2005, but I was a board member first. It gave me the opportunity to really know the organization and what it stands for before I took the [president’s] job.”


According to NAFA’s Russo and other association heads we interviewed, involvement in an association can start in a member or volunteer role and evolve into a career. “If you’re lucky like me, you can start your career there and spend your whole life doing something you love, in an industry you love,” said Russo.

IMCA’s Ballinger quipped that associations give you the opportunity to work hard, but also “work hard at work worth doing.” GSAE’s Wendy Kavanaugh agreed:”Ask yourself every day if you’re having fun. We work so hard at our careers. If you’re not having fun, then it’s just not worth it.”

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser enews.

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