Leading with a Servant’s Heart

tim niedecken

Though I enjoyed the work, I was tired. The work was transactional – challenging and fun but not fulfilling. The focus was always on the next quarter and shareholders. I was ready for a change, but I didn’t know it.

When the call came, the CEO of one of the associations I worked with asked if I was interested in entering the non-profit world. I said “yes” to that opportunity – a simple decision that changed the trajectory of my life and career in countless positive ways.

Entering the non-profit space was an eye-opener. Like many who make the transition from the for-profit to the non-profit world, I was out of my element. I made many mistakes and had a hard time learning and adapting to all the little things that make someone successful as an association executive.

My experience serving on association boards and committees was helpful. However, the most valuable resource was the network of experienced affiliates in Fort Worth that I was lucky to tap into. Jennifer Haisten, Joy Wade, Melanie Hoover, Kelly Graham and others swooped in to help me limp through my first years of association work. They taught me a lot and helped me find my footing.

TSAE’s role in this recovery is simple and captured by our positioning statement: “Better Together.”

Working in the non-profit space was an eye-opening experience. Shifting my focus from profitability and shareholders to serving members and helping them succeed was extremely fulfilling. Every association professional I know has the heart of a servant and truly takes joy in serving others. In my case, it took a career change to find my personal version of this joy and find my own servant’s heart.

At the recommendation of the Fort Worth affiliates, I found my way to TSAE and began to immerse myself in the educational programs and instruction. My “aha” moment was in Houston at the New Ideas program in 2011. Now that I had been in the non-profit space for a few years, I better understood the challenges I faced.

During that TSAE program, I found educational sessions specifically designed to help me do my job better. I could sit with a group of peers with the exact same problems as me. And, unlike the for-profit world, these individuals were willing to share their experiences and insights. I was hooked then and remain hooked today!

TSAE served as a career accelerator for me because it provided skills, knowledge, and exposure to topics that I would never have accessed on my own. Volunteer leaders and staff notice skills development and you move down your chosen career path faster than you ever would without TSAE.

In my home office, there is a small plaque with a quote that says: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.” To me, this statement perfectly captures what it means to be an association executive.

Our profession is charged with finding ways to organize and harness the power of our respective associations to achieve more than we can individually. We serve associations and our members selflessly, employing “shadow leadership” of our boards and committees, advocating on their behalf, and organizing them in countless ways to achieve a unified mission.

Unless you work for an association, you probably don’t know what association executives or professionals are. You almost certainly don’t consider the work all of us do to be a professional occupation. Early in my career when I worked in for-profit space, I know I didn’t understand this – I just thought these people happened to work for an association. I was dead wrong.

TSAE Past Chair Tiffany McGee, CAE is CEO of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, an association with no shortage of Type A personalities. I have heard Tiffany tell a story involving her leadership where she had to explain to her leaders that an association executive is a profession, not simply a position.

I think Tiffany is right. Anyone who has ever studied for any of the alphabet soup of credentials – CAE, CMP, CEM, or others – can tell you that these are professions and not hobbies. In Texas, the association industry alone employs more than 27,000 and has an annual economic impact of more than $3.2 billion.

association executive is a profession

Succeeding in this profession takes hard work and a diverse set of hard and soft skills that rival any other professional position.

These skills have been challenged by COVID-19. Our profession and all affiliates have been impacted and the journey to find our new normal will be long and filled with unexpected turns. Every association executive I have spoken to in the last 18 months has been forced to change or re-evaluate some or all of the core programs and services offered to their members. The affiliates we rely on to do our work as association executives are seeing signs of recovery, but they also have a long path to recovery.

Post-COVID-19, my belief is that the skills held by association executives will be in demand. The skills and organizations may look a little different than pre-COVID-19 but the demand for qualified non-profit management will increase.

TSAE’s role in this recovery is simple and captured by our positioning statement: “Better Together.” TSAE will continue to provide association professionals the educational programs, resources, models, and community that any association employee can engage in to find answers to hard questions and lead the volunteer leaders who are counting on us for answers.

If you are new to TSAE, this is a great time to lean into the organization. There are incredible opportunities to engage with TSAE and gain the skills needed to fit your career goals. Skills used in this profession are in demand, and TSAE can be an invaluable career accelerator for you, just as it was for me.

The TSAE Board is dedicated to being proactive and ensuring TSAE is prepared to serve association executives and affiliates in the same way we serve our association members. And we are fortunate to have a skilled professional staff to help accomplish our goals.

As a Board, we challenge each other to look around the corner to what TSAE will look like and what may be needed five or 10 years from now. I can promise you that the challenges we will face will change, but the need for servant-hearted association executives will not diminish anytime soon.

Thank you for being a TSAE member and the work you do to serve your associations and members. You and your work are truly appreciated.

Photos by Brooks Burris

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