Career Transitions: My Journey to the Other Side

By Kelly George, CAE

In early 2015, I received an email from Beth Brooks, the current executive director of TSAE, announcing a change in the CAE eligibility requirements that allowed affiliate or supplier members to sit for the exam if the majority of their work was devoted solely to qualifying organizations. At the time, I had worked at SeminarWeb, a managed online education solution for associations such as TSAE, for four years. I remember forwarding the email to my boss at the time, Kent Hughes, excited about the possibility of one day earning the distinguished certification. He wrote back saying that it might not be as far off as I thought and I should look into it further. With his encouragement, I began compiling my professional development hours and confirmed with ASAE that my two years post-graduation work in the alumni relations department at the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business would count as a qualifying organization. I had doubts in my ability to pass the exam not being actually on the association side and was terrified of failure, but upon realizing that with one young child at home, my life was only going to get busier in the coming years, I submitted my application and signed up for the TSAE Study Course. The hard work paid off and I’ll never forget the sense of relief and pride that came from opening the letter saying I had passed my exam a few months later!

I’ve always been passionate about education, and as much as I loved my team and the leadership role I was in at SeminarWeb, I knew my long-term goal in earning the certification was to run an association. I had a boss that empowered me to run our department and also supported my work-life balance, but I had a strong desire to expand my skillset. After serving non-profits for nine years from the for-profit side, I was ready to transition to “the other side,” so when an opportunity was staring me in the face in late 2016, I had to jump on it.

I was extremely honored to win the TSAE Young Professional Award in 2013, but even more than my gratitude in receiving the award itself was the opportunity to be welcomed into, and develop stronger relationships with, a distinguished group of past award recipients. Many of the other winners were some of my first friends in TSAE as fellow founding Toastmasters members and had served as mentors to me in an unofficial capacity. Although many in this group had to put Toastmasters on the back burner as they transitioned into new roles over the years, we made it a priority to get together a few times a year to catch up, both personally and professionally. At one of these lunches, two of my favorite TSAE colleagues, Julie Courtney, CAE, CMP and Christopher WiIlliston, VI, CAE mentioned how they were looking to hire an education director. After the gathering, I started asking them some questions to see what the position entailed and let them know my interest in the position. After a few more calls and emails, I was elated to accept the position and start my career as a true association professional at one of the most respected and well-known organizations in TSAE.

Starting a new job can be a little a little scary and there were going to be tradeoffs for sure, but with IBAT I was confident I was joining an incredible team. After meeting so many of their staff through Toastmasters over the years, I was familiar with the company culture – servant hearts, a drive for excellence, family-first, and an overall ability to just have a good time. Under the direction of Julie, I quickly went from being a fairly inexperienced professional meeting planner, to running 10+ education events a year. I gained experience in site selection, contract negotiation, f&b, sponsor and exhibitor packages, working with committees to build agendas, marketing, and so much more.

At the annual TSAE New Ideas Conference last year I ran into Renita Fonseca, CAE, CMP, a board member who I had admired from afar during her acceptance speech for the TSAE community service at the previous year’s holiday luncheon. I had the pleasure of getting to know her briefly at Southwest Showcase a month later and had seen on Facebook that she recently took over as CEO of the Wilderness Medical Society. It sounded fascinating so I asked her to tell me about it, and her face immediately lit up. She told me story after story about the cool things her members do, and as we parted ways, I was left in awe at her excitement for her new position.

As much as I enjoyed my role and appreciated the mission of IBAT, the 50- minute commute downtown from Dripping Springs and overnight travel to events across the state each month was wearing on me. I have two precious children at home (sometimes more, as a foster parent) that mean the world to me, and they’re growing up so quickly. Even though IBAT was flexible with my hours and exceptionally supportive, overall, the days were long and I didn’t feel like I was being the mom and wife that I wanted to be.

When I ran into Renita a month or so later, she mentioned that she was building a team. Besides the biggest, most obvious benefit of working entirely from home, there were quite a few other appealing aspects to potentially being a part of her team:

  • I’m very passionate about traveling to new and beautiful places, spending time outdoors and also caring for others, so the culture of the membership was very much in line with my personal interests.
  • I had heard nothing but positive things about Renita and always admired how positive, inclusive, friendly, compassionate and hard-working she seemed. If I wanted to be a strong, respected female CEO one day, she would be a great teacher.
  • She was honest with me about the state of the organization – with a history of no employees with association management experience, there was a lot of work to be done. The idea of building something from the ground-up and truly making a difference really appealed to me.
  • As Marketing & Communications Director, I’d be getting to do a lot of the things I enjoy that led me to chose public relations as a major at UT. Newsletter, magazine, social media – tasks that would allow me to be creative and better tell the story of our membership in an exciting way.
  • Renita was the only full-time employee with 3,000+ members, which meant I’d get to wear a lot of hats. I knew from my SeminarWeb days that I enjoyed being a part of a small team and also the day-to-day variety. Although communications would be a big part of my job, I’d also be assisting with the board, membership, events, website redesign, AMS selection, and many other miscellaneous duties.

I dreaded telling my team of the last two years that I was leaving. They were genuinely good people, had taken a chance on me and had included me in their vision for the future growth of the organization. I hated the idea of leaving them, but knew they’d find someone great to replace me. Not surprisingly, they were happy for me and beyond supportive of my decision.

I hit the ground running at WMS and almost immediately fell in love with the work. It was fun yet challenging, and I felt like I was making a difference. Every day looks completely different, but one thing that is certain, I’m incredibly fortunate to be spending less time in the car and more time with the people that I love most!

I’m a big advocate for female empowerment. I left TSAE’s Women’s Summit last year feeling totally pumped, and even more so after reading “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandburg at the suggestion of one of the many inspiring speakers. Being a working mom is extremely challenging, but I do believe you can be a successful mother and employee if you have the determination and if you have people who believe in and encourage you. I’ve been extremely blessed to have that support in my life and am beyond grateful for those who have invested in me (my family and the people mentioned in this article to name a few), walking by my side in the professional journey that has brought me to where I am today.

I don’t know what lies ahead, but I do know that I have learned many lessons along the way. If I had to share my advice with regards to making career transitions, it would be to make a personal commitment to professional development and lifelong learning, make your needs known to your employer (or future employer) and have open conversations about if/how those needs can be met, don’t be afraid of the unknown as change is a good thing, identify role models and surround yourself by those potential mentors, and finally, life is short, live it with purpose and do what’s best for your and your family.

Kelly George, CAE, is the marketing & communications director for the Wilderness Medical Society and managing editor of Wilderness Medicine Magazine. She can be reached at kelly@wms.org or 512-712-6366.
Photo credit
: ©iStock.com/eoneren

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