Nancy Berg had a plan. In 1982, when she started at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers in an entry-level position in association management for one of the tech groups, she wrote down her goals. “I still have that piece of paper,” she laughs. “And one of my goals was to become the executive director of SME. I don't know why — I didn't really expect to stay with the organization very long — but that goal and a few others have stayed with me all this time.”
She achieved her goal in 2000, when she was named executive director and general manager of SME. “I always counsel employees and colleagues who want lucrative positions or top jobs to set a business plan for themselves,” she says. “Designate a set amount of time for gaining experience and work really hard to build your skills and knowledge, as well as create a reputation and visibility for yourself.”
Where the Jobs Are
Of course, before you can create a plan, you need to know what the possibilities are. One path is to move up within an association, like Berg did, but there are numerous other possibilities for association meeting planners. Until 2014, employment of meeting and convention planners is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is especially true in industries that are experiencing high growth, such as the medical and pharmaceutical sectors and their allied associations, government agencies, and private security and insurance companies.
In addition, association meeting planners are in an enviable position, as most of their skills are transferable, opening up possibilities of moving to a better position at another association, transferring into the world of corporate or government meeting planning, or moving into any of the allied fields, such as management at a hotel or convention and visitors bureau. Independent consulting is also an option, as is working for an association management company or an association placement firm.
The opportunities aren't exactly limitless, but they sure are extensive. “The neat thing about meeting planning is that it gives you such a broad range of experience, allowing you to go in so many different directions,” says Mickey Schaefer, CAE, president of the Tucson-based consultancy Mickey Schaefer and Associates, LLC, and a former vice president at the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Not sure how to move your career forward? Here are some tried and true strategies from those who have done it themselves, association meeting planners who have made that leap and gotten their career onto the fast track, moving into positions with a more lucrative salary, more extensive responsibilities, and more job satisfaction.
Have a Plan
A plan doesn't have to be quite as specific as Berg's, but periodically it makes sense to take a look at where you are, where you've been, and where you want to go. “The first thing is to really learn about yourself,” says Schaefer. “Analyze your work style. What gives you energy? What saps your energy? You'll get job offers all the time, but if you don't know where you want to be, you can't get there.”
Schaefer used her own strategy when she started her consulting company almost two years ago. “My husband convinced me to move to Tucson,” she says. “I'd always been happy at the Academy, but I'd also always dreamed of owning my own company and had been keeping a file of ideas, which really helped me narrow what I wanted to do.” Today, she is a consultant specializing in strategic planning for associations and the meetings and tourism industries.
Planning has also been key in Lauren Kramer-Whelan's career. As a meeting planner at the American Association of Blood Banks, she says, “I got great exposure to large and small meetings and on-site management, but they didn't have a large, and I knew that I'd need a background in exhibit management to make it to the position as director of an association.” She made a very deliberate move when she applied for the position of exposition manager at the National Automobile Dealers Association.
That move paid off when she achieved her goal of being director of meetings, both at the American Association of School Administrators and then the Society of Nuclear Medicine, before kicking the next step of her plan into gear. “In 2000, I made another very deliberate move to become director of meetings at the American Academy of Otolaryngology,” she says. “This was the job I'd always wanted. The organization has a great reputation and is very stable, the person who held the job before me is highly respected, and the location is close to where I live. It was a lateral move in terms of title, but this is a larger society with more responsibilities and other benefits.”
One of the ways that Kramer-Whelan knew she'd need that crucial trade show experience is because of the advice of managers and mentors. “I had mentors along the way who knew I wanted to be a director,” she says. “They were great advisors and industry friends who helped me create a clear path.”
At its most basic, having friends in the industry can open doors that otherwise wouldn't even be known. It was a simple lunch that started Jeremy Figoten on his path towards meeting planning. After a year and a half as senior manager of the membership department at the National Association of Chemical Distributors, he knew that he wanted to move forward. “I'd dabbled in meeting planning,” he says, “so I called a former co-worker [Sherry Romello, CMP] who had become the director of meetings and expositions at the National Apartment Association. She agreed to meet me for lunch and an informational interview, and the next thing I knew, she had created a job for me as manager of meetings and expositions.”
Not only did Romello hire Figoten, but she guided him along the way. “I didn't know what my career path was when I was first hired,” he says, “but Sherry really became my mentor. She was grooming me, which I realized when she left three years later and I was able to be promoted to her position.”
Romello also encouraged Figoten's interest in industry associations, an invaluable way to meet others in the industry. “I got involved in all the local organizations — PCMA, MPI, GWSAE, and AMPs — the Association of Meeting Professionals,” he says.
Schaeffer also says networking and industry associations have been invaluable to her career. “It's such a wonderful way to learn from other people. You go to lunch, attend a meeting, talk to others and see what does and doesn't work for them so you can bring ideas and proven strategies back to your own association,” she says.
Timothy Moses, director of meetings and conventions for the American Academy of Dermatology, says his position on CVB industry advisory boards is another great way to network with peers. “I've learned as much from the bureaus as they have from us,” he says. “It's a great way to exchange information from the planner and supplier side.”
Knowing the right people can also help in a more indirect way. “We're always asking people who they know,” says Linda Campbell, CAE, an executive search consultant for Tuft & Associates, a Chicago-based national executive search company for associations. “We find people to fill positions in numerous ways, but we're constantly using our network of contacts — and their network of contacts — to find the right people.”
Learn from the Best
While who you know can get the doors to open, what you know is what will keep them open. One thing Campbell looks for when tasked with filling an upper-level association position is the planner's education. “Industry certification is one element we look for, such as the CMP or CAE,” she says, “because it shows knowledge and dedication.” While education in meeting planning and exhibitions from industry associations are obvious starting points, she adds, “Beyond that, it's also important for planners who want to get ahead in association management to make sure they broaden their focus to areas like financial management, marketing, governance, strategic planning, and other more broad-based business issues. All those things are so critical to high-level association management.”
Campbell also says pursuing an MBA is time well-spent. Schaeffer, who completed her own masters in 1995, agrees that education in all areas is key. “Take classes, join organizations, read trade magazines,” she says. “It all opened my eyes so much.”
Be a Player
While there is pleasure in doing a job well, just doing your job these days isn't enough. It's critical that others see and know what you're doing in order to move up. “Meetings professionals are in a very visible position,” says Schaeffer, “and they can rub shoulders with some of the top people in the organization. They're prime candidates for promotion since people already know them.”
That might be the case for Figoten, who in his tenure as director of meetings and expositions has overseen his area's three most successful years ever, with records set across the board. In response, he says the National Apartment Association's director, Doug Culkin, CAE, “has been very good about guiding and mentoring me. He sees a bigger picture for me as well, and he just recommended to me that I should start to work on my CAE, in addition to my work on the CMP, to expand my horizons.”
Schaeffer says that part of being able to be visible is understanding an organization's overall strategy, not just your own small part of the pie. “You have to know and be able to implement the strategic plan of the organization,” she says. “Give more than is expected of you.”
Deborah Sexton's visibility within the industry was directly responsible for her being able to move from the president of the Chicago CVB to her current position as PCMA's president and CEO. “My involvement and volunteerism with all the different organizations put me in the public eye,” she says. “I never would have thought to apply for a position like this, but they knew me and they came to me.”
Her advice to others is simple: “The more you care about what you do and the more you learn about it, whether it falls directly in the area of your own responsibility or not, the more likely it is that you will continue to progress. I'm passionate about what I do and that's clear to others.”
But sometimes you need to make a change to keep that passion alive. That's what Berg is doing. “I woke up a few years ago and realized I hadn't been taking my own advice,” she says. “I was at the top of a great association, I had money and power and lots of awards and recognition as the first woman to do this and the youngest person to do that. But I wasn't sleeping, my health was marginal, and I was bored. I had to ask what I really wanted.”
So she set out to take the advice she'd given others and create a plan that would allow her to achieve more of a work-life balance. “I purchased an evaluation to identify my business strengths and weaknesses. After hundreds of questions,” she laughs, “it said I should be director of a philanthropic organization or an event planner!”
Clearly she'd been in the ballpark all along; she just needed to fine-tune her plans. Now she has a consultingwith SME to work on “some interesting new projects, including creating an organizational business plan for a new membership and product industry, which will include a new certification program, two new shows, and a series of conferences.”
Following her own advice, Berg has created “a career focused on what I do best and what I enjoy, but one that still allows me to have a balance between my career and my personal life.”
Bridging the Wage Gap
GETTING TO THE TOP is certainly something many planners aspire to, but along the way they also want to be compensated fairly. Unfortunately, it might still be a while before that dream is realized, at least for female association meeting planners. According to a recent survey of 925 U.S.-based associations by ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership, male meeting/convention chiefs earn a median salary of $90,385, compared to females in the same position, who earn $71,750. The gap is even larger at the CEO level, where male CEOs earn $160,000 while their female counterparts bring in only $106,000. However, the gap narrows again in associations with more than 100 employees, with male CEOs earning $372,000 and females making $346,000.
Is there any good news for female planners in this scenario? “We do expect to see this gap decrease as women start entering their second and third CEO positions,” says John Graham, president and CEO of ASAE. “One of the reasons why there's still such a gap, especially at the higher levels, is that many of the female CEOs are still relatively new to such positions, while the men have had more experience. Women will catch up.” A case in point, he notes, is the higher salary levels of women CEOs in the larger trade associations: “Once you get to those levels, those women are also coming in with a couple of CEO positions under their belts and they're compensated better.”
In the meantime, there are some strategies that women can employ to ensure the best salaries. “When I go to negotiate salary, I've already done my homework and am prepared to present a compelling case to demonstrate why I should receive a certain amount,” says Deborah Sexton, president of PCMA. “I know what the industry is paying, I can present what I offer to the organization, and I can state what I'm looking for.” Sexton looks at industry surveys to discover averages, such as those by PCMA, ASAE, and MPI, as well as magazines like. “I also know from my counterparts what they're making,” says Sexton. “I know who the A and B team players are, and I've always wanted to be an A player — so I know I can go for the high side.”
Independent consultant Nancy Berg, formerly general manger and director of SME, emphasizes that it's important to focus on what you can do to contribute to the organization. “You can't just say you deserve it; you need to be able to demonstrate why you deserve it.” Here's where hard numbers can make the most compelling case — tout your achievements, especially when it comes to revenue you've generated.
While it might seem like a great idea to move steadily up the ladder in one association, you might pay for it in cold, hard cash. “Typically when someone moves up within an association, they get an incremental increase,” says Graham. “But when an association brings in someone from the outside, they tend to be willing to pay more than if they've promoted from within.”
And if you're not happy with your salary? “If you're being unjustly paid, go get another job,” says Berg. “There are plenty of great organizations that truly value experience and will compensate for it.”
Your Associations at Work
In an ongoing effort to help members define their careers and move forward, several industry associations provide career resources, including online job and resume posting options. Here are some of the tools available online:
MPI: The most all-encompassing of the recent initiatives, Meeting Professionals International's MPI Member Solutions was launched early this year as a tool to create personalized career paths for meeting professionals. MPI Professional Pathways is an online skills self-assessment tool (free for members; $40 for nonmembers), which results in three reports: My Gap Report (analysis of where the person is compared to the industry standard for any given position), My Skills Assessment Recommended Resources (recommended events, books, articles, etc. to address needs identified in the Gap Report), and My Job Best Fit (compares responses from the skills assessment to all jobs in the MPI system to see how members match up). Other resources include a job search and posting bank, free peer-to-peer assistance with career planning and strategizing, sample resumes, articles on career development, and more. www.mpiweb.org
ASAE: Career Headquarters is the largest online Web site of its kind, allowing members to post resumes and employers to list job postings for associations and related industries, such as hospitality, travel and tourism, meetings, and financial services. The center provides a career FAQ, the ability to e-mail a career question to ASAE staff, and resources for purchasing a behavioral-style assessment, resume writing services, and job coaching services. www.asaecenter.org/yourcareer
PCMA: Professional Convention Management Association's Online Career Center allows members to post their resume for free ($25 for nonmembers), either with names or anonymously for those who prefer their job search remain private. Employers can also post job openings ($250 for PCMA members; $350 for nonmembers), which remain online for 60 days. Salary surveys are also available on the site. www.pcma.org/resources/careercenter