Saying ‘Yes’ to New Opportunities

Tracy Tomson, CAE
2019-2020 TSAE Board Chair
Executive Director & CEO
Restaurant Facility Management Association

Like many association executives, I never knew that association management existed as a career path until I joined this industry 14 years ago. My first job was at age 9. Before you call CPS on my parents, it wasn’t that kind of job. I was living in the suburbs of Boston, dreaming of being an actress/singer who might one day be on Broadway or on TV. This was way before Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, so the only place for kid’s TV programming at the time, aside from Saturday morning cartoons, was on PBS (think “Sesame Street,” “The Electric Company” and “Mister Rogers”).

I auditioned, along with thousands of other kids from the greater Boston area, for a new PBS series called “Zoom” – a show for kids, by kids and featuring real kids being themselves. So, my unlikely professional career began as an original cast member of what would become a ground-breaking and Emmy-award winning show that crossed racial and socio-economic boundaries during the tumultuous early ’70s. Yes, I was a “Zoom Kid” (as we came to be called). It was a fun and magical experience, where rather than going to piano lessons or soccer practice, my afterschool activities included going to a TV studio five days a week to work on the skits and dance numbers for that week’s show. That was, until it was my turn to be pushed out at the ripe old age of 11, and my family moved to Texas shortly thereafter.

Moving to a new state in the middle of sixth grade was a bit of a challenge. Let’s just say this Bostonian stood out in my North Dallas elementary school, which is not what you want to do at age 12. I was teased for being the “Zoom Girl” for a few weeks, but only until there was something or someone else more interesting to talk about. I soon learned to say, “y’all” and assumed my newest role as a Texan.

I continued to sing and act throughout high school, participating in speech tournaments and school musicals, while also juggling drill team and a senior class officer position. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but those formative years set the stage for being a leader, being part of a team and feeling comfortable standing in the spotlight when necessary.

Still, that little girl who wanted to be a Broadway star didn’t have any idea of that unconventional path I would take to end up on a stage in front of thousands of people. Rather than going off to New York at 18 to wait tables while auditioning and otherwise being a starving actress, I headed off to The University of Texas at Austin to have the full-on college experience – football games, sorority functions and (some) studies. Upon graduation, I married my high school sweetheart, Steve, and moved to Florida so he could begin his career while I tried to figure out what my career path would be.

So, did I start my association career then? Not quite, but bear with me. Armed with a communications degree in advertising, I found an unfulfilling job as a copywriter for a tiny Mom-and-Pop-owned advertising agency while continuing to look for something better. And so, I began my career as a radio promotions director. During that time, we moved back to Dallas and had three beautiful daughters who grew up going to music festivals and visiting Mom at live broadcasts from car dealerships on the weekends. Ultimately, I decided to take a break from the crazy hours and stay home with my girls. (Note: The hours were just as crazy and the pay was even worse.) I spent five years at home, watching the baby become a girl and her sisters become preteens. Then as I sent my youngest off to kindergarten, I felt it was time for a new challenge.

And that is when I stumbled upon association management. I was asked to help launch a brand-new association focused on the restaurant facility management industry. I initially questioned my ability to do something so vastly different from what I knew, but I came to realize I was better equipped than I thought. Much like I didn’t know most of the alternative bands that were played on one of my former radio stations, I certainly didn’t know all the jargon of a restaurant facility manager. But if I could put on an Oldies Music Festival, then I could figure out how to put on a great conference! Listeners and members are similar, as are advertisers and sponsors. I realized I could use my experience in radio to navigate the development of this association, successfully building its membership and growing its revenue.

First, I worked to build a recognizable brand, using professional and creative marketing to effectively communicate who we were as an organization and effectively theme our biggest event. My hope was that our attendees would look around and think, “Wow! This is an organization that pays attention to details and does things right, and I am proud to be a part of it!”

Several years in, we also created a charitable program called RFMA Gives that we felt could help build member loyalty and engagement and enhance the member experience. Devoting time to volunteering is something that many of our members have in common. We understood this cause would bring our members together, both the restaurateurs and the allied vendor members, creating a shared sense of pride in themselves and for our organization. It has ended up being part of the fiber of who we are as an association and one of the best and most rewarding opportunities for members to interact outside of our annual conference. 

After my first few years as Executive Director, I joined ASAE and TSAE and soon learned about the CAE designation, in awe of those who had achieved it. I brushed off any thought of working toward earning the CAE myself because I had been winging it pretty well (or so I thought) and running RFMA on pure instinct. I didn’t really want to know how much I really didn’t know. Much like the 12-year-old Boston girl who was plopped down in Dallas and had to figure out how to act like a Texan, I suppose I felt like I was still just acting like an association executive, and I was just plain scared to expose myself as the imposter that I felt I most certainly was.

But after seeing Shonda Rhimes interviewed for her book, “Year of Yes,” about a time when she pushed herself outside of her comfort zone and said “yes” to every new opportunity that came her way (no matter how much it scared her), I thought maybe I could push myself just a bit more. While I wouldn’t be skydiving anytime soon, I decided the least I could do was study for my CAE. After all, we had our own certification program at RFMA. If I wasn’t willing to model to our members the benefits and rewards of certification, what kind of example was I? The worst that could happen would be that I would fail, but I felt certain that I would learn a great deal through the process that would benefit both my association and me. So, without having to go up into an airplane and stand on the edge of opened door midair, I leapt! I joined a CAE Study Course through TSAE in September of 2016 and sat for the exam that December. And when I passed the exam, I can’t tell you how validated I felt. I thought, “I guess I must know what I’m doing after all!”

From that point on, I just kept saying “yes.” I said “yes” when asked if I would join the TSAE Board, while still wondering, “What could I bring to the table?” I said “yes” when asked to be a Strategic Initiative Leader, not knowing that was a step toward being considered for Chair-Elect, to which I also said “yes.” Now, as I begin this year of leadership, I’m grateful for the unexpected path that brought me here, and the lessons I have learned from my predecessors and fellow TSAE members who also say “yes” on a daily basis. And I can say for certain that it doesn’t matter what path you took to get into the world of associations, your skills are transferable, and all experiences are valuable in an industry that focuses on building community through shared interests.

The TSAE staff is so talented and committed to creating programming and resources that address the needs of our diverse membership. And we have in Steven Stout, FASAE, CAE, the ideal leader for this time in our development as an organization. He is innovative, open, humble and a positive example and leader for his team. My goal for this year is to be the kind of Chair that I appreciate having – one who is engaged and aware but not overly-involved in the day-to-day operations that are well-managed in Steven’s capable hands. I will be a sounding board and adviser when needed and bring the Board together to do the governance duties with which we are tasked. The Board and I will be here to represent the voice of the members, support the staff in their efforts, and help guide TSAE into the future through sound strategic decisions and fiscal oversight.

I am honored to be a part of this Board and play a role in both the history and the future of TSAE. I’ll do my best to walk as gracefully as possible in the shoes of those who have come before me as Chair, and will keep saying “yes,” even when it’s scary. Now, as I begin this year of leadership, I’m grateful for the unexpected path that brought me here, and the lessons I have learned from my predecessors and fellow TSAE members who also say “yes” on a daily basis.

Photo by jujuB Photography

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