Keys to Association Career Success

By Hank Berkowitz • June 17, 2014

Hank Berkowitz, Naylor, LLC
Hank Berkowitz, Naylor, LLC

Probably the best piece of career advice I’ve heard in a long time came the other day from Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City and billionaire founder of Bloomberg, LP: “If you like what you do, you’re going to do more of it and the more you do of it, the more successful you’re going to be—and that gives you more reason to like it.”

Pretty simple. So, why don’t more people follow Bloomberg’s mantra, whether they’re working in the association world, the corporate world or the not-for-profit world? You don’t have to be an aspiring billionaire to follow it.

Click here for more of Bloomberg’s recent interview on the TV and radio network that bears his name.



  • Advancing one’s career may be the member’s responsibility, but associations that mentor, guide and connect members are amply rewarded at dues renewal time.
  • As you get further along in your career, don’t distance yourself from the youngest members of your profession. They’re working harder than you think and even teens can school associations.
  • Doing a lot of little things really well on a daily basis will make you more successful than aiming for “one great thing.”

“Focus on your passion, not your paycheck. That’s one of the best pieces of career advice I’ve ever gotten,” said Shane Yates, CAE, executive director of the Ohio Society of Association Executives (OSAE). “That and what Bloomberg said is about finding something that you’re passionate about and that will bring you peace of mind.” That’s what association employment is all about, added Yates, “and the commitment to the causes we work toward advancing.”

As Christine Smith, president of online career center provider Boxwood Technology, explains in today’s leadership profile, “Success usually doesn’t come from one single great ‘thing’—it’s doing a lot of little things well every day.” As Bloomberg continued in his recent interview with Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, success is also about how well you bounce back from your failures and mistakes. “I don’t know many people who were successful who didn’t have lots of downs in their careers,” said Bloomberg.
Whether you’re mid-career, fresh out of school or long-ensconced in the C-suite, career advancement is top of mind across all segments of the association world. As our third annual Association Communication Benchmarking Report recently revealed, career or professional development topics garnered four of the top 10 topics deemed most important for association leaders including: “how to/best practices,” “career/professional development,” “statistics that help them do their jobs better” and “networking programs for young professionals.”
See this Did You Know feature in  for more.
Helping members help themselves
That’s not surprising to Boxwood’s Smith: “People join associations to advance themselves professionally. It follows that the resources an association provides to enhance key skills or help someone find their next position are of high interest.” OSAE’s Yates agreed: “In today’s competitive environment, members expect their associations to make them more desirable employees. Although advancing one’s career is a [member’s] responsibility, associations serve a strong role in mentoring and guidance to help connect members to the proper resources and people” they need to move their careers along.

Regardless of your job title, you must become more efficient, more productive and more impactful about the issues that concern your industry or profession, said Robert L. Johnson, founder and chairman of the global business, media and sport conglomerate RLJ Companies. “Your job is to make whatever organization you represent more effective in more that [members] can’t do it for themselves,” explained Johnson, who started his career as an association lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

Watch our video for more about Johnson’s fascinating career journey.

Advantages of association employment

While many association managers wish they had more staffing to accomplish all the things they’d like to do in their jobs, we’ve found that the profession attracts highly agile professionals who relish the challenge of wearing “multiple hats.” That’s not something easily accomplished (or tolerated) in the corporate or government sector.
According to Yates, the two biggest advantages of association employment are 1) the ability to advance important causes, which makes an individual “more committed to their work and the industry they serve,” and 2) the opportunity to work in many different departments and roles. “That variety is what expands your skill set as an employee,” he said.
Re-entering the for-profit world
If a person has spent most of his or her career working in the association world, Yates said the biggest adjustment would be the loss of the dynamic relationship of working with volunteers and a board of directors. When working for an association, you become used to the added value and support volunteers bring to your organization that would be lacking in other work sectors,” Yates said.

Evolution of online learning and career development

Technology is the biggest driver of change in online learning, career development and executive recruiting, said Yates. “The way people consume information is changing so dramatically that we need to use technology to present learning and development [whenever] people need it—whether it’s 2 p.m. or 2 a.m.”

Boxwood’s Technology’s Smith agreed. “Five years ago, they were saying online career centers would be replaced by social networking. LinkedIn is certainly going strong, but it hasn’t displaced the big [online career sites]. If anything it’s enhancing them.” Meanwhile, associations are uniquely positioned in the online job arena as a niche destination that attracts some of the “most talented and highly motivated people in your industry.”

Advice for engaging the next-generation member

Of course, no conversation about association careers would be complete without discussing ways to engage the up-and-coming members of your industry or profession. According to Yates, having a robust online career center is an excellent reason for both members and prospective members to visit your site and increase your association’s visibility. It’s also a great recruiting tool, added Smith. “When a non-member visits your site, it’s a perfect opportunity to reach out and ask: ‘Hey, would you like to join?’ If you help someone find a job, then joining the association or renewing membership becomes a very easy decision.”

A new Ipsos market research report called Millennials the “social and always-connected generation that is confident, open to change, liberal and self-expressive. According to researchers, Millennials want to “roll up their sleeves and experience the world. They strive to be part of something bigger than themselves. This strong social conscience is amplified by technology.”
A respondent to our annual Association Communication Benchmarking Study agreed that technology has dramatically changed the way we communicate with members. “What used to be free-flowing, adjective-driven paragraphs of copy has turned into bullet points and 140 characters or less. Successful communications provide all the who, what, when, where, why in short, concise statements that can be processed by the recipient quickly and easily.”
Here some other ways that our survey respondents suggested for connecting with next-gen members:
  • “Grab their attention as early as you can. Work with colleges and universities to start or work with the club for your industry or career. They become some of the most loyal and active members you will ever have, but you have to listen to what they ask for and provide those services.”
  • “The services or programs and the way the information is delivered can be very different, so it may take those used to the old ways longer to understand or find important for future members.”
  • “Know their needs, especially as to career path/development.”
  • “In order to gain participation from younger members, you MUST know and understand why they joined your organization so that you can tailor your communication efforts toward their needs/expectations.”
  • “Meet and greet them; don’t depend on virtual communications to do it all.”

In fact, you may soon have to contend with an even younger, more tech-savvy, more self-reliant generation than the Millennials a.k.a. “Generation Like” or “Generation Selfie.” See Jill Andreu’s story (“What 15-Year-Olds Can Teach Associations About Content Strategy”).

As R.L. Johnson explained: “If you are slow off the dime in getting out your ideas, your information and the passion you have for your cause,” then you’re not going to remain relevant to your members. “You really want to be a first mover,” he added. “If you can consistently show that your mission is to impact the market, the constituents and the industry that you’re trying to serve, then you’re going to be around for a very long time.

In this recent video interview with Bloomberg and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, both men agreed that the youngest workers are generally not the stereotypical slackers. They are “equivalently motivated” and hard workers, “just like I was,” added Blankfein. They have more tech tools at their disposal, so they don’t have to do as many clerical tasks as we did starting out, but they “they’re absorbing a lot more information than we had to and distributing it to a lot greater effect.”


Blankfein, who came of age during the Vietnam era, said his generation and the Millennials are not all that different. “Just like today’s young people, we protested against things we didn’t like, we complained about how hard we had to work and most of all, we were very anxious about our careers.”

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