Fulfilling a Dream: Tiffany McGee, CAE

Tiffany McGee, CAE
2020-2021 TSAE Board Chair
CEO, Texas Trial Lawyers Association

Growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, I had dreams of following in my father’s footsteps and becoming a dentist, which may come as a shock to some who have heard me say frequently, “I’ve been what I wanted to be when I grow up since I was 22 years old.” But during my first two years as a pre-med college student, I took a meaningful political science course “for fun” that changed my world and the mark I would make in it. I immediately changed majors and set my sights on working at the Texas Capitol. In 1993, I did just that.

During that fateful legislative session in Austin, I worked as a staff assistant to Senator O. H. “Ike” Harris of Dallas. I interacted with many association executives and lobbyists. When the session ended and the Executive Director of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association (TTLA) asked me to come work for him, I said, “YES!” I, of course, had no idea what he wanted me to do there, but whatever it was, working for him and for a whip-smart, influential group of lawyers would be a whole new experience – and a chance to dive into a profession I’d been considering for myself at the time. After working for TTLA for only a few months, I discovered my deep appreciation for the power of associations.

I was in awe watching a group of members (competitors, even – gasp!) work together and use their collective resources to accomplish incredible things for their collective profession. As a staff member, I found great satisfaction in organizing and serving volunteers and inspiring them to care about things they might never have known about or appreciated before. And way back in 1994 with political winds shifting in Texas, regardless of who or what party was going to be in power, I knew one thing was certain: every organization needed members, a good fundraiser, effective leaders and a staff member who loved association work. At the age of 22, I knew I wanted to be an association executive director, and I set out on my journey to become a good one.

In only a year and a half, I’d risen to the position of Associate Membership Director at TTLA. I’d started our organization’s new member committee, the “Advocates.” I’d helped open two field offices, and I developed many formal systems for measuring success in membership, fundraising and programming (“KPIs” before that was a thing). I was loving every moment of my work. I leapt out of bed every morning to get to work as quickly as I could. I told my sister, Marie, people should call work “fun” because that’s what it was to me. (She thought I was nuts.)

And then … life took me to Chicago.

In 1996, when I was faced with the choice of moving to Chicago or having my then-fiancé move to Austin, the choice was clear: Chicago was (is) home to the second largest concentration of associations in the country. Imagine the possibilities! The decision to move to Chicago was easy, but leaving my family (all of whom were in Texas) and the staff and members at TTLA – my first and most meaningful rung on the career ladder – was extremely hard.

Through tears, I said goodbye to Austin, and off to Chicago I went. As soon as I arrived, I signed up as a member of the Chicago Society of Association Executives (CSAE). They ran a robust job bank, and I knew my next career step was somewhere in that database.

Knowing the importance of being an engaged association member, I made an appointment to meet the CSAE staff and make their Career Center Director my new best friend. When I arrived at their offices for my meeting with her, we made the rounds for me to meet everyone. Then she said, “We have an opening here at CSAE, if you want to interview for it.” It was in membership – a perfect fit. I interviewed on a Thursday, got the job on a Friday and started the next Monday. (It may not have been quite that fast, but close to it.) I’d landed another dream job. During my time there, CSAE became the Association Forum of Chicagoland, and I served as their Membership Director for two years. Our Executive Director was a legend: kind, funny, smart, driven, hardworking, but he made it seem effortless, which, ironically, I worked hard to emulate. CSAE’s board and members were association professionals who ran the largest national and international associations in the country, and every day I worked with nationally recognized leaders in the association and hospitality industries. It was like going to association graduate school!

And then … life brought me back to Austin.

In 1998, when I knew we would be moving back to Austin, I called TTLA, and the Executive Director said, “We’re cleaning out an office for you. Come on home.” I went on to serve as TTLA’s Director of Membership and Fund Development for 16 years.

During my 27-year career, I have been a member of numerous professional associations. I’ve gone to meetings and listened to speakers. I’ve “meet-and-greeted,” cocktail partied and networked with hundreds and hundreds of people. I was a member who participated – I learned when I wanted/needed to, but knowing the experience of those around me, I didn’t feel I was qualified to give back with righteous authority.

And then … my boss died.

TTLA’s long-serving Executive Director Tommy Townsend, CAE (and TSAE Board Chair in 1991-1992) passed away suddenly in 2013, and the TTLA Board elected me to serve as CEO. I was confident I could do the job and earning the Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential would add to my bona fides.

So, I sat for my CAE.

I viewed earning my CAE as absolutely essential and critically important for my success in my new role. Until this time, I’d been totally confident in my work as a membership development specialist and I knew I had well-rounded general association knowledge. But in order to pass the CAE exam (and in my mind, serve as an effective CEO), I had to be brutally honest with myself about what I didn’t know and dive deep into those domains.

TSAE’s CAE Study Course was life-changing for me. Sure, I learned volumes and volumes of information from the books, but I also learned the lasting, deeply human lesson of the importance of a professional family. A trusted circle of wise women and men whose experiences and perspectives differed from mine and would enrich my life in profound ways. I allowed myself to open up, be vulnerable, talk about what I didn’t know and ask for help and advice. My study group was a steadying force in those early months of my CEO tenure. I believe they helped me successfully pass the CAE exam, but I know I couldn’t have done my job in those early months without them.

I have a wonderful and loving family. My children (Evan and Henry), my parents, siblings, in-laws, aunts and uncles, cousins near and far – they’re aware I have an important job and they’re pretty sure I’m good at it, but they don’t really know what I do.

My TSAE family truly understands. They are the one group of people who truly understand my work, my struggles, my triumphs and my failures. When I tell my TSAE family I have more than 200 board members, they gasp when my relatives would give me a blank stare. My TSAE family is the one group I don’t have to explain what a headache an AMS or UBIT can be. (Come on, you know what I’m talking about!)

My TSAE family served as my sounding board for so many critical decisions back in those early days and became lifelong friends. They are the ones who encouraged me to first serve on the board, and my fellow board members and past chairs inspired me to serve as chair myself. They are the best of the best, and I’m honored to have their confidence, so I stepped up to serve and show my gratitude to TSAE.

And then … there was COVID.

A massive bump in the road none of us expected. I heard a wise TSAE friend say recently, “We aren’t all in the same boat, but we’re for sure all in the same storm.” Unfortunately, the storm isn’t dissipating any time soon. While this year may be more challenging than any of us expected, I have confidence in the wisdom and expertise of my fellow board members and our capable and talented staff. Rest assured, our organization will be in excellent hands as we all work through these next 12 months together. Let’s link arms, hold tight, and lean on one another – we’re a family. That’s what we do.

Photo courtesy of Lacey Seymour and Kayla Prasek

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *