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 Julie Bruno

Our careers take shape around the priorities we set for life and work, life events (planned and unplanned), the evolution of our fields, and sometimes world events. Before I started at AMC in 2008, I didn’t know association management even existed.

A Valuable Background in Hospice/Palliative Care

I have come to appreciate that much of my background and experience prepared me for this work. My master’s in social work program was focused on health and mental health administration. From early in my social work career, I was attracted to work in geriatrics and then hospice. I started my hospice career in Evanston, IL, when my family moved from Pennsylvania so my wife could pursue an advanced degree. That 3-year plan kept us in Chicago for 5 years as my career advanced into management. We returned to Pennsylvania in 1997 to our home, family, and friends with every intention of staying there.

I was hired to start a hospice program for a small rural hospital back home. That was an amazing 5 years of learning and growth: how to get a new hospice program Medicare certified and then accredited; finding ways to teach nurses, physicians, and home health aides how to provide hospice care; training community volunteers; helping the billing department bill for services; contracting with pharmacies and nursing homes; developing relationships with the local community and newspaper; fund raising; and serving as the social worker and bereavement counselor for the patients and families. As a member of the Pennsylvania Hospice Network, we planned a state conference featuring Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the modern hospice movement, and Ira Byock (a physician leader in the field) and American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM) member. In hindsight, I was in training for association management!

The decision to return to Chicago was spurred by personal priorities and values that became very clear after 9/11. Within a year, we pulled up roots and moved back to Chicago, where we have lived for more than 17 years. I returned to a management and then administrative position with that same Evanston hospice at a time when hospice and palliative care (providing support, planning, and symptom management for those whose illness was serious but not necessarily terminal) were growing, as was regulatory scrutiny. We had a leadership change at the organization and I was among those whose employment was terminated.

Finding My Niche with AMC and AAHPM

Within days, one of my colleagues had received an e-mail from someone in her network, Steve Smith. There was a director of education position open at the AAHPM. She said I should apply so I did. I was a puddle of emotions, devastated about losing my job, and had no sense of what to do next. During the interview process (that included attending the 2008 Annual Assembly in Tampa, FL), I spoke with several staff and members and learned about association management and the Academy. I remember commenting that association staff are like Sherpas; we have the expertise that allows the members to advance their careers and fields by creating education, advancing policy, networking, and mentoring, and so on. I still think that metaphor works.

It’s been more than 11 years since I started my journey into association management. Hospice, palliative medicine, and medical education are evolving. My focus has evolved from developing education programs and products to include more external work with boards of medicine and organizations with whom AAHPM collaborates to deliver education. This work resulted in my promotion to the unusual title of Chief Learning Officer.

I came to AMC as a social worker with expertise in hospice and palliative care surrounded by a growing team with expertise in association management, marketing, governance, advocacy and policy, and more. My years of experience translated well to association management, giving me the opportunity to learn, grow, and contribute. I will always be grateful to those who hired me for recognizing the fit that took me a while to see.

Tips to newcomers to association management:

  • Know your strengths and ask a ton of questions.
  • Rely on your team. Association management is a team sport. You don’t need to know it all.
  • Get engaged with learning opportunities at AMC and Association Forum. Read blogs, like this one, and newsletters to learn the lingo and find ways to plug in.
  • Expect a 2-year learning curve before you have a sense of competence and confidence. And then expect to keep learning.
  • Have fun!

Julie Bruno is the chief learning officer for the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.

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