Owning Our Narrative Leads to Growth

trevor s. mitchell

IT IS AN honor and a privilege to serve as the next Chair of the Texas Society of Association Executives (TSAE), and I would like to thank all my fellow members who have encouraged and supported me in this journey. I have served alongside many excellent professionals while on the TSAE Board, and I am excited to follow in their footsteps and build on their efforts as we advance the organization in the coming year.

I never envisioned I would one day work for an association, let alone become an Executive Director/CEO leading one. As a small-town farm boy from Missouri, my journey into association management has been an adventure (to say the least). Back then, I thought I might be a lawyer, teacher, or advertising executive when I grew up. But somewhere along the way, I became an association professional, doing exactly what I was always meant to do. I wish I could say I chose this path from the beginning. But how do any of us get here? Looking back, there were several signs that led me to where I am today.

The first sign was in high school. I was actively involved in Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) at all levels of the organization. I even served as National Vice President during my senior year. That was my first interaction with an association, and I didn’t even realize it! My time with FBLA gave me some of the most formidable life experiences I still utilize today. As graduation approached, I was asked the one question every senior is asked, “What do you want to do with your life?” While I never could pinpoint the exact profession, I was consistent in one part of my response. It was always, “I want to do something where I get to work with people.” That is what I enjoyed most during my time with FBLA.

The second sign was my involvement in various membership organizations as a college student. I joined and served as President of Kappa Kappa Psi (KKY), a national honorary band service fraternity. I also started a college chapter of Phi Beta Lambda, a college division of FBLA. When I neared graduation, I considered applying to become a Chapter Field Rep, traveling the country to work with each chapter and volunteer leaders for KKY. Looking back, this could have been my first association job. Ultimately, I went in a different direction by continuing my work for a grant-funded non-profit as their Marketing Director, but this was sign number three that association work was meant for me.

After a few years, I moved to Kansas City, Missouri. As I searched for my next job, it seemed that only associations were willing to interview me. Sign number four! In one interview, I asked what they were looking for in a candidate. I was told someone who could work with volunteers, chapter leaders, and understood both bylaws and Roberts Rules. Not one to miss an opportunity, I shared my FBLA experiences. Apparently, that was all they needed to hear, and I was offered the job the following day at ARMA International (ARMA) as Manager of Member Services – my first true association job.

After a few months at ARMA, I received sign number five. As I worked on a project with some volunteer chapter leaders, I had an epiphany. I was doing what I said I always wanted to do: work with people. I then threw myself into any association role, leadership role, or membership role I could find. I got involved in the Kansas City Society of Association Executives (KCSAE) and the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). In 2007, I attended my first ASAE conference in Chicago and I learned about the Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential. I took the test at my earliest opportunity, ultimately achieving my CAE designation in 2012. I was engaged in everything I could to grow my knowledge and experience, and I took on more responsibilities and opportunities within my own organization. I served on the board of directors for KCSAE and as president-elect, which I had to resign when I moved to Texas in 2015. I volunteered on ASAE’s Component Relations Council, eventually serving as chair and led the review and publication of the Component Relations Handbook 2nd Edition.

trevor s. mitchell

In 2010, I made a career change. I became a Business Analyst and Project Manager Consultant for a tech company in the association industry. That opportunity lasted only two months. At one meeting, I was sitting at a conference table working through a problem with my client. While I sat there, my brain kept telling me I was on the wrong side of the table: I should be on the association side. Two weeks later, I learned from a former co-worker that the Membership Director at my previous organization was leaving. By the end of the day, I had an offer from the CEO to come back. I accepted it on the spot and continued to grow in various roles for another five years while on staff there.

By the end of 2014, I was ready for another career change. I didn’t know what, but I knew it was time. I had reservations, but I thought I was ready to be a CEO. I was prepared for a move to Washington, D.C. or Chicago. Never did I think my journey would bring me to Texas. That was in the opposite geographic direction from where I thought all the association jobs were headquartered. But thanks to Pam Donahoo, FASAE, CAE for seeing something in me and hearing what I wanted next in my career.

The transition to Texas in 2015 brought with it opportunities for change and growth, including the opportunity to live my life openly as a gay man in the workplace. While I never felt unsupported in my previous organizations, I had made a choice like I believe many others do to stay quiet. I wanted to be known for my work rather than for my sexual orientation. When I moved to Texas, I took the opportunity to reset and live my authentic life.

Another opportunity for growth arose as I started networking at industry events in Texas. Up to that point, I had spent my career creating a community within both ASAE and KCSAE. Unfortunately, those groups had minimal overlap in Texas. In some ways, I felt as if I were starting my professional career all over again. Fortunately, I knew a few peers who were able to help me bridge those gaps, meet some new people, develop relationships, and create my TSAE community that I know today.

I was at American Mensa for two years as Senior Director of Membership and Strategy before stepping into my first Executive Director/CEO role. Both my mentoring and training had paid off. I knew it was my time. I was as prepared as I could be. I jumped in with both feet and didn’t look back. It’s been challenging at times, but what job isn’t? Through it all, I’ve had my TSAE community to support me.

As someone who thrives on giving back and contributing to the betterment of others, I volunteered at all levels of TSAE before I applied to join the Board of Directors. Through my volunteer experiences, I have met and worked with many outstanding TSAE members that I now call friends. As Chair of this fantastic organization, filled with talented and brilliant professionals, I am truly humbled. I realize that it is you, the members, who are the real driving force of TSAE. You do the organization’s work, from attending TSAE’s signature events and participating in our TSAE online community to volunteering on a variety of committees and task forces.

owning our narrative leads

As I look to the year ahead, the theme of raising our collective profile as a profession and a community continues to resonate with me. We often find ourselves answering questions from friends and family about how we found ourselves in association management. And usually, the answer is short and sweet: I fell into it. My own family refers to me as Chandler from Friends. He worked, but no one quite knew what he did. That has never really sat with me, but I wasn’t sure exactly why or how to address it.

Then last year, I was able to attend ASAE’s annual Volunteer Leaders Retreat as the current Chair of ASAE’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee. During that retreat, Wanda Little-Coffey, CAE of the ASAE staff challenged the volunteer leaders to change our thinking and narrative. What if instead of “we fell into it,” we thought of it in terms of “the profession found us” or “we were drawn to the calling of association work”?

What we do is complex and challenging work. Servant leadership is one of TSAE’s core values and I see it in every member of TSAE. It is something we should take pride in. We own our narrative, so why not make it a positive one?

trevor s. mitchell

While I’ve lost track of all the signs that have led me through my association career to TSAE, I hope you’ll take this opportunity to reflect on your own. What drew you to association management? Who comprises your close-knit community of association professionals? In what ways might you like to give back to those who have supported and mentored you?

I’m proud to be affiliated with TSAE, and I hope the Board and I, along with our rockstar staff, make you proud to be a TSAE member over the next year. As we bump into one another at industry events, I hope you’ll stop me and say hello. And should you have an idea for how to further improve TSAE, I hope you’ll share it with me. Because at the end of the day, we are truly #BetterTogether.

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