How did I get here? Navigating a Career in the Association World

How did I get here? Navigating a Career in the Association World

By Joe Lindahl, MA CAE

How did I get to association management? Lucky coincidence, in all honesty. I was lucky enough to graduate with a journalism degree in 2008, the absolute pinnacle of rapidly declining journalism jobs and the greatest recession since the Great Depression.

After graduation, I continued to work as a youth programming director at a local gym, running a child care center and summer camps throughout the city. As luck would have it, my job wasn’t recession-proof and I was laid off with a new degree, no job, and plenty of questions.

Luckily, I stumbled upon a staffing agency that specializes in placing recent graduates into entry-level roles. I interviewed for a position at AMC as an account administrator focusing on marketing and membership, and the rest is history. After 2 years at AMC, I moved out to Washington, DC, to work for the Child Life Council, now the Association for Child Life Specialists, to focus on their strategic initiatives, and then to the American Staffing Association as  senior manager of chapters and regional councils. In 2017, I returned to AMC and now serve as the senior manager of operations for the National Association of Neonatal Nurses (NANN) and executive director of the International Transplant Nurses Society (ITNS).

The impact of associations can be demonstrated in my own little professional journey. My father was a nurse, and I’ve worked with three nursing associations; my career started via a staffing agency, and I contributed to the staffing and recruiting industry at the American Staffing Association.  I’m about to have my first child, and while I hope we won’t need a NICU visit, if we do I know that National Association of Neonatal Nurses (NANN) members can provide me with insight, comfort, and a wealth of knowledge. If I or a family member ever need an organ donation or transplant, I have access to experts in this area through my work with ITNS. Associations affect all types of people and I’m certainly no exception.
As I look back on my career journey, there are a 3 things I’ve discovered that have helped me succeed.

Learn to Be Soft

Consider how to develop your soft skills, or communication and intuition skills used in everyday life and business. At the governance table we may refer to them as strategic competencies or universal competencies, but soft skills may be the greatest differentiator in the future.  I personally love the UNESCO competencies, which cover leadership traits that are truly global and forward thinking.

  • Systems Thinking
  • Anticipatory Thinking
  • Normative Competency
  • Strategic Competency
  • Collaborative Competency
  • Critical Thinking Competency
  • Self-Awareness Competency
  • Integrated Problem-Solving

What Motivates You?

To some degree, whatever field you work in, you’re probably interested in—at least I hope so.  In a broad sense, I am a governance and strategic planning type of person; I like creating efficiencies, attempting to generate and enhance a strong leadership pipeline, and meeting set objectives. But I am enthralled with and love thinking futuristically (though I’m not a fan of sci-fi) about new technology and innovations. It is the yet-unknown solutions to old problems and what association management could look like in the future that I am absolutely fascinated by. Artificial intelligence, augmented reality, the emergence of 5G networks—what does it all mean for us as a society? Because in the end, it will impact our associations.

So, what part of your association work does the same for you? Hopefully you have one, if not, think hard about finding one.

Find Your People

My wife and friends don’t really understand what I do, so I need folks I can “nerd out” with and relate to. (If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked if I’m a nurse….)

During my time in the DC area, I became involved with ASAE, attended the Future Leaders Conference, served on their Components Section Council, and attended the ASAE Annual Meeting. When I returned to AMC, I continued to find ways to connect with peers through the NextGen Summit, for which I was selected to be a part of in 2017, and this year I earned my CAE. Through all of these volunteer opportunities, I’ve met some remarkable people who share the same challenges and aspirations as I do.  I’ve had tremendous discussions and debates with peers, and in the end, it has helped me either reaffirm or reevaluate my own perspectives. At the end of the day, my work with associations really felt like a career and less like work because of these relationships.

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