By Maddy Marchildon
In many contexts, I would say that I don’t mind looking young – getting ID’d to ensure I’m of age or being mistaken for a student, to name a few. However, I can’t say I share this same enthusiasm when it comes to my professional life. There are many misconceptions about young professionals in the association world, particularly due to the age gap we’re now seeing as baby boomers dominate the staff demographics of many associations along with a smaller number of members from Generation X, and, recently, members from Generation Y.
I feel that young professionals in the association and not-for-profit management world are some of the most driven individuals that I’ve worked with. However, many young professionals can probably relate having their competencies questioned by seasoned professionals, as they might make the assumption that the younger generation are fresh out of post-secondary institutions and bring little real-world experience to the job market.
One element that makes working in association and not-for-profit management unique is that you gain a lot of experience in various different areas – and fast. While we are still young, and recognize how much we still have to learn from senior professionals, we may have a lot more experience under our belt in the first few years of our careers than young professionals in several other industries. This is because:
• Many of the agencies/organizations we work with have limited resources – This generally means they operate with fewer staff. We have had to get our feet wet in many different areas, take on roles outside of our job description, and provide coverage in departments outside of our own. We have faced anything from website editing, to marketing and communications, leadership and volunteer management, etc.
• We’re involved in volunteer-run organizations ourselves – We recognize the value of associations and get involved with them, so, by default, we’re increasingly adding to our experience by seeking professional development, hands-on board and committee experience, and networking opportunities for career advancement. As members and volunteers in these organizations, we have a 360-degree view of how an association works, adding to the experience and level of service we can deliver.
• We’re fast learners and open to trying new things – We’re used to learning on the job, particularly for those of us with theoretical post-secondary degrees outside of our field (and from my experience, many individuals in my professional network can relate to ‘falling into’ association management without any formal educational background in the field). For example, agency life means learning a whole new ‘business’ when taking on a new client. Working directly for an association might mean the need to jump in on a project that is already underway when additional resources are called for or priorities shift.
• We’re flexible and organized – Because it is hard to predict our day-to-day, we always need to plan ahead and expect the unexpected. This makes us flexible, accustomed to making it work, and easy to work with in a team environment where everyone is working toward the same vision and mission.
• We are the future – Whether you believe in the Millennial stereotypes or not, Generation Y and Z are the future of the association world, and we’re actively helping to shape it. We can bring fresh insights, but also have a solid understanding of the way things used to, or currently, work and can operate within that realm as well.
• We aren’t as young as we look – With people living longer, and looking and feeling younger than ever, is it really any surprise that you may find you’re seeing young-looking individuals in senior positions? Looks can be deceiving!
For readers who may still be in the first few years of their career, or have been blessed/cursed with a young appearance, here are a few ways that may help you overcome the challenges as a young professional in the association workspace and help build credibility.
• Confidence – A little bit of ‘fake it ‘till you make it’ and dressing the part, and a lot of research, learning and making sure you know what you’re doing can help you perform with confidence.
• Turn it into an asset – Use looking young to your advantage. For example, play up the more positive Millennial stereotypes. We’re tech-savvy, innovative, and enjoy giving back, which all lend a hand to a changing association landscape.
• Mirror communication – Learning how to mirror working styles and communication so you can work with anyone – that goes for different generations, industries, levels of management, etc. – is an important skill, particularly since so much of our day-to-day interactions are via email.
• Industry recognition – Always be on the lookout for award applications, certifications, and publication opportunities so that you’re getting your name out there at the start of your career and helping build up your accolades as a young professional.
• Think long-term – Remember, you’re still in the early phases of your career. The work you’re doing now, while it may feel like you have to work two or three times harder to prove yourself, will pay off in the long-run.
A senior leader at Redstone Agency Inc., Maddy has worked with over twenty not-for-profit organizations. She is the 2014 recipient of the Donna Mary Shaw Award from the CSAE and currently serves on the CSAE Trillium Chapter Young Professional Taskforce. Twitter – @maddymarch or @RedstoneAgency