4 Things I Wish I had known When I Started Out

Lessons for Young Professionals in Association Management

By Maddy Marchildon

I’ve read many articles over the years from seasoned association leaders and have used the lessons within those articles as guides throughout my career. Some of the most important lessons include understanding that relationships are key, finding a cause that I’m passionate about and learning the intricacies of achieving balance in a not-for-profit organization.

It got me thinking more about what I wish I had known in my first few years in the association world. Here are some lessons I wish I had known then:

You will make mistakes

This could be anything from minor errors on an e-marketing communication or missing a deadline for a board report, to something more significant, like making a decision that leads to an unprojected deficit on your annual budget. While it is important to know when to ask questions and get the information you need to prevent these types of mistakes, what truly matters is how you handle it.

How you handle a mistake speaks to your honesty and integrity. Learn how to approach the board, committee or other association representative to let them know, accept responsibility, and propose how to resolve it. If possible, resolve it before you even approach them. It’s not worth trying to cover it up, and generally speaking they’ll appreciate that you were solution-oriented. Then, move on, internally and externally, and focus on your performance moving forward. On the bright side, you will probably never repeat the same mistake again!

Don’t take things personally

This can be hard to learn for many of us working in not-for-profit management, because we work really hard and we care a lot. You may find yourselves investing tons of time into a particular project, being exceedingly proud of it, and yet receive a short, discouraging email from someone you’re working with as a response. In other cases, you may feel like you’re the target when someone is looking to point the finger in a challenging situation, even though it may not have been your responsibility.

Learn to know when something is not your fault, even though someone might be making you feel like it is. This may ring true for anyone working in customer service because of the level of personal investment in clients and the innate characteristic to please them. When they’re not happy despite an exceptional performance, you can’t help but feel like you’ve done something wrong.

It helps to remember who you’re working with. Many of the groups we work with are made up of volunteers, working off the sides of their desks. They are likely the most passionate individuals in the industry and are usually an absolute pleasure to work with, but you are probably not their first priority. They may simply be trying to manage it all while keeping a work-life balance. Learning how to communicate with them to let them know they are being heard and supported, without being defensive or apologetic, is an important part of supporting volunteers in this environment.

How to handle being the youngest in the room

There is often a disadvantage to being lumped in with Millennial stereotypes. We can be labeled the ‘what’s-in-it-for-us’ generation (selfish) and as having a ‘140-character attention span’ (unfocused). We are often cited as caring more about personal brands than the organizations we work with (disloyal). But, we’re also labeled as social media savvy, innovative, driven and transparent. We have learned how to work the Millennial stereotypes to our advantage by excelling in the areas that will drive organizations forward, because we believe that an organization’s mission is critical to ours. In doing so, we’re breaking the potentially negative perceptions of working with our generation.

Additionally, though there are some generational differences, what is more important to consider is learning how to be flexible and mirror the communication style of the group you’re working with. By meeting and exceeding their standards in all areas, such as email communication, documentation, reporting and even professional dress, appearing to be the youngest (or most inexperienced) person around the table becomes a non-issue.

The value of networking

This is something I wish I had learned much earlier in my career. Networking can take place at industry events, through professional associations and online. Early on, I never knew where, how or when to connect with other industry professionals or the value it could bring in an ever-changing industry, like association management.

It first started with the discovery of industry organizations that offered resources or professional development and networking events. As some of you may only just be learning, CSAE has an amazing network of other association executives for members to tap into that are open and willing to share their experiences and lessons learned. It’s all part of an exchange of information to advance the profession.

Finding online resources also involved a learning curve because it is a matter of finding reliable sources and communities to join. I also didn’t know how to effectively use LinkedIn and Twitter as a tool for personal and professional networking and marketing. Once I started learning more about the different ways to meet industry professionals and obtain professional development, I found the number of opportunities that began presenting themselves increased significantly – mentoring opportunities, invitations to attend industry events, opportunities to contribute to industry publications, and so forth.

Part of the beauty of what we do is that we are learning every single day. I am looking forward to sharing more lessons learned! Check out the CSAE Trillium Young Professionals’ (YP) online community, which helps foster connections between, and learning among, CSAE’s YP members. It provides a space for members to collaborate, seek feedback and ask questions, and share information and resources for personal and professional growth.

Article by Maddy Marchildon, on behalf of the CSAE Trillium Young Professionals Task Force. Maddy is the Director of Association Management & Consulting Services at Redstone Agency Inc., a member of the Young Professionals Task Force for CSAE Trillium and the recipient of the 2014 CSAE Donna Mary Shaw Award for young professionals in association management.