Career Transitions: A Career in Two Acts

By Sherry Milligan, CAE

I often think of my work life as a career in two acts.

Act One became my heart. Like most of you, I did not set out to be a career association professional. As a little 20-something, I got married and followed my husband who took a job right out of college that moved us to Dallas. Our town in northeast Ohio (Youngstown) was being emaciated by a devastating work reduction crisis that hit the Rust Belt in the early 1980s and we’d never find the opportunity there like we could in a robust Texas economy. (There was especially no opportunity for someone with an English degree like me!)

I watched the want ads in the newspaper. The American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) was hiring for an editor of its monthly magazine. Here’s something an English major could do! After a couple interviews, I was in and started working with a team of three to write, produce, edit and sell advertising for a monthly magazine – sometimes of up to 100 pages.

Those were fun years. Advertising flowed in, we had a budget for creative and interesting cover art, and everything I know about printing I learned then. My fascination with technology also became piqued at that time. We had an extraordinary machine with capabilities above and beyond any typewriter – it was a machine that had “memory;” you could go back and correct any words in the line you just typed! Astounding!

My role there grew. I took on public relations and other communications tasks. I got my feet wet in advocacy by attending meetings in Washington on several occasions. I took over our membership team, then marketing, then accounting, then IT and became an associate executive director. I continued my education and got my MBA.

And what variety, what ability to learn about all facets of an organization! Somewhere early on, maybe about the time my role expanded from editor to communications manager, I realized I loved the cadence of an association. I identified as an “Association Professional” and became involved with DFWAE in the early days. Then, it was on to the CAE credential. With pen in hand, I killed those essay questions, which formed the basis of the exam back then.

My career with AARC lasted over 30 years, and I was on my way to slowing it down, looking at an early retirement, as my husband and I had some other life goals that included (sorry, Texas) getting out of the heat in the summer.

Act Two put a bow on my career. Over the years at AARC, I worked closely with one of our technology partners, enSYNC, a technology advisor for associations. They were a continuous influence on the development of technology at AARC and were a true partner, advising us on innovation, suggesting new technologies and saving our butts when things sometimes went awry.

enSYNC offered me a job that allowed me to use my years of accumulated knowledge about association membership, marketing, events, education and more. Again, demonstrating its desire to be a real partner to associations, the company was looking for team members that could help advise on best practices – sometimes having nothing to do with technology, but everything to do with helping an organization think through achieving its goals. Best of all, I could work remotely and travel to meet and learn about associations all over the country.

Within this role, I am afforded the opportunity to use my years of association management experience to help clients and potential customers, both large and small. Our vision is, “Do what is best for the client,” and it fits me so well because my heart was, and still is, that of an association professional.

There are so many exciting things ahead for our business models as associations. So many great marketing ideas with automation, software options that are magnified with the ability to connect systems though APIs, data analytics that will open new insights for us. With Act Three approaching, I won’t be around to see all those innovations, but I’m excited for those of you who will.

Sherry Milligan, CAE is the VP of Nonprofit Strategy for enSYNC Corporation, a technology company for associations that includes iMIS practice and consultation, strategic assessments, custom development and software products for payment processing, online education, data analytics and more.

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