10.30.19 | Associations

On Women’s Leadership: Association Executives Speak Out

Women's Day Webinar

According to the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), women comprise roughly 75% of the association and nonprofit workforce, but they only hold 45% of the top leadership positions. In addition to being a woman-owned and operated company, Meeting Expectations’ executive leadership stands out as a unicorn in comparison to those statistics, boasting a figure of 85% of women that hold leadership positions in its association management business unit.

In March, ME broadcasted a webinar on International Women’s Day featuring six of these executive directors. We called it “Leading with Boldness” to capture the spirit of these women in leadership. These executive directors guide associations with hundreds and sometimes thousands of members, provide direction to association staff and volunteers, and are at the cusp of changing industries and technologies in a variety of professional associations.

In this interview, they covered a plethora of topics, including:

We hope you enjoy the excerpted transcript from our webinar. You can view the webinar in its entirety here.

Tiffany Thomas: “Hello everyone, I’m Tiffany Thomas, education coordinator at Meeting Expectations. I’d like to welcome everyone to today’s webinar titled Leading with Boldness – Take Charge Women Leading the Association Management Industry.

During this session, panelists of Meeting Expectations, women in leadership, will discuss their journeys to become executive directors, how they approach their leadership roles and will get tips and common production traps in the workplace. Without further delay, we will begin with introductions of our panelist, Beth, can you begin? Please list your client organization and how long you have been in association management.”

Beth Chitnis, CAE: “I’m the vice president of our association management business unit at Meeting Expectations and serve as the executive director for the International Association of Insurance Professionals (IAIP). I have been in association management basically my entire career and ultimately got into it when I was in college without realizing it.”

Kelly Ash: “I serve as the executive director for the International Practice Management Association (IPMA). I’ve been involved with association management for a whole three years now and absolutely love it.”

Ragan Cohn, CAE: “I am the executive director of the Oracle Applications and Technology Users Group (OATUG) and I have been in association management my entire career, so a little over 20 years.”

Amy Critzer: “I am the executive director of TUG, which stands for The Users Group (TUG) for Sage Construction and Real Estate Software. I’ve been with Meeting Expectations and TUG for about six years now and in association management my entire career.”

Jen Sanford, CAE: “I am the chief staff executive for the National Property Management Association (NPMA) and I’ve been in association management for about eight years now.”

Tiffany: Can you explain what association management is and what an association management company does?

Beth: “We manage the business of nonprofit organizations, professional membership associations, user groups and foundations. Within an association management company, we are running these businesses within a larger company infrastructure so we’re able to provide shared resources to meet the needs of our clients. We support clients that are in different industries with varying subject matters. While the topics are different, functional areas of support that we are guiding are the same from governance to finance, membership, marketing, education, events and beyond. So again, it’s running those businesses of these organizations, but utilizing the shared resources and best practices from the other client teams.”

Tiffany: Can you share how you ascended to your leadership position?

Kelly: “I was looking for a career that merged my love for people, communication and the creative side of me, so I ended up finding that in association management. In terms of getting a leadership role, it was by really knowing my association.”

Beth: “It was the ability to look for opportunities to do more within the associations and taking a seat at the table to constantly learn more so that I could continue to expand on the value that I can give back to the client.” Ragan: “I found myself getting involved outside of my department, taking on special projects, participating on teams and taking advantage of chances to lead teams when I could. It’s also about professional development and that ongoing effort to expand skills and learn new things.”

Tiffany: Why do you think women are such a great fit to be leaders in the association management industry?

Amy: “Being able to build relationships and nurture them as well. Being an executive director includes building relationships with your board and sometimes it becomes a family and that reaches to your members and beyond.”

Jen: “A lot of the times, we are in the background doing the work to help make the board and association look good. Women as whole, we want the get the job done and do it well even if we don’t get the credit for it.”

Beth: “One of the factors that I found personally beneficial is the ability to read a room, assess body language and identify whether we are on the same page. The ability to listen to what is being said without trying to think about what I am going to say next. I think all of this relates back to an emotional intelligence factor and the ability to identify the direction the conversation might be going.”

Tiffany: In every workplace, there is the proverbial table where it can be a struggle for women to take a seat at, do you have any tips or advice of how to claim your seat?

Kelly: “I grew up in a different generation when being a woman or being a girl was in question. I think that I’ve always had the approach from a different mindset – there’s no reason why I shouldn’t have a seat at the table. For me, I didn’t wait for someone to ask me or invite me, I made myself an expert at what I was doing and brought my own seat to the table. By doing so, by being so knowledgeable, my ideas and opinions are respected. My advice would be don’t wait for someone to ask you to join the table – make a case for yourself to be there.”

Amy: “By just saying ‘take a seat at the table’ implies that it is up for grabs, so take it and be assertive. Don’t be afraid to take risks, you have the knowledge of your association and you can be a leader. By taking a seat at that table, it’s a step forward for everybody – share what you know.”

Tiffany: What have your respective client associations done to create opportunities to expand women in leadership?

Ragan: “My client, The Oracle Applications and Technology User Group (OATUG), is a software tech industry association, which means its traditionally male dominant field. What we have done in the past is hosted a special event around women in technology. This event gives women a chance to come together and share stories over a meal and hear from a panelist of women who are in various stages of their career in the field. This past year, we created a recognition and scholarship program to recognize an emerging leader within the women in technology to give her an opportunity to be a voice on the panel and help inspire those who are in the early stages of their career.”

Amy: “Being in the construction industry, it is also perceived to be very male-dominated, but we noticed a lot of women at our conference that were in leadership roles. We thought they could teach some classes and that other women would want to hear from them and about their journey. One of our board members mentioned bringing in a session called Women in Construction where we hosted a panel at our conference to see how it would go and it was wonderful. Women leaders were able to share their challenges, their successes and their journeys.”

Beth: “I support the International Association of Insurance Professionals (IAIP), which was originally founded as the National Association of Insurance Women. When it was founded, it identified a need to provide education, leadership, training and networking for women that were stepping into insurance roles or their role was growing within the insurance industry because the men were going off to war. Beyond that, the focus really is on creating those leadership opportunities and the leadership development, so they launched the Certified Leadership Professional program to provide training to help develop strong confident leaders within the insurance industry and beyond.”

Ragan: “To bring all of this together, we haven’t really faced a lot of hold backs in our careers as women, but we do know that this is the reality in many workplaces and in many industries. I would just say that I hope that we’ve made an effective case here that if you are in that situation, another place where you can go to expand your skill set, gain leadership opportunities and build your resume is the association that serves your field.”

Tiffany: What is your approach to mentoring, and would you like to continue?

Jen: “Personally, I think that mentorship is very important. It is also important that we give back. I think it’s very important that as we continue to climb in our careers, we turn around and help those that are coming up behind us see the promise that they have, even if they don’t see it in themselves yet. It’s important as a mentor that I get with my mentees to make sure that anything they have in mind regarding what they want to do with their lives that we give them the path and those skills so that they can grow themselves to one day become whatever it is they want – whether it be in association management or not. I try to give them different types of projects, some projects that I know will really help them grow and it allows them the chance to try something out to see if it piques their interest.”

Tiffany: Women are supposed to “work like they don’t have children and raise children like they don’t have jobs”, how does that statement resonate with the moms in the group?

Beth: “This question is near and dear to me. I am blessed with two, young elementary-school-age children and for me the key is to try my best to effectively juggle all the responsibilities for work and family. We talk about a work-life balance and in my life, balance is ideal, but it is not always a reality – so it’s just trying to identify how to be best juggle all these different components.

I will say, I am fortunate to work in an environment with such great flexibility, so if I want to make a soccer practice after work or be a mystery reader in a kindergarten class on a Friday morning, we have the opportunity to carve that time out in our schedule.

I was asked recently, by a peer, how I manage all the varying responsibilities and demands on my time and schedule, so I shared a few tips with her. One key tip is to prioritize daily; I have a daily post-it note of things that I have to get done by the end of the day. Sometimes, only one thing gets checked off but it helps you stay focused on what is important on that day. Another key tip is don’t over-promise. Sometimes I find myself over committing to things but making sure I don’t over-promise on deliverables.

It’s important to be realistic with your time and what is actually going to be accomplished and communicating that back to whomever the party is asking for that deliverable. The most important tip, for me, is taking ownership of my calendar and my time. If I’m not careful, my day can be filled with meetings for something else other than getting work done. And finally, make sure you take time for yourself – read a book or do whatever you need to do to be a better you. Sometimes with work and kids, it’s easy to forget this so be sure to always keep that in mind.”

Ragan: “In addition to just making time for yourself, make sure you make time to set your next goal. Make sure you know what you are always working towards. You’re in charge of your own life, your life is not your sister’s life, not your mother’s life, not your co-worker’s life – and it’s not a competition with any of those people or anyone on social media.

Life is what you make of it and you only get to do it once, so you do you. You must set your own boundaries because no one will ever come to you and say ‘okay, you have to leave work now’ because work is never done and that has to be okay with you – it will always be there the next day. This is true to not only moms but everyone, you need to have other things in life other than work. Set your boundaries, say yes when you want to say yes but recognize that it is okay to say no when you need to say no.

My biggest point that I originally wanted to start with was to just give yourself some grace. I feel really sad for any woman who really feels like that statement ‘you got to work like you don’t have kids and raise kids like you don’t have a job’. What a sad pressure to feel like you have to bear in life. So, if you just grant yourself some grace and chart the course you want to chart for yourself. Give yourself permission to go be the mystery reader with your kid’s class and give yourself permission to not volunteer to be the room mom, if it’s not your season for that, give yourself that grace as well.”

Tiffany: How do you avoid production traps, like becoming a note-taker in a meeting, to ensure you are being strategic?

Ragan: “When we talk about not being the note taker, we don’t necessary mean that it’s bad to take notes. When we discussed this earlier, the idea was that you don’t always have to volunteer to take on the administrative role. I think as women, we need to be careful to avoid putting ourselves in teams where we really should be seen as equals. We don’t want to put ourselves to be seen as someone’s assistant.

It’s easy to fall into that because you’re the one who volunteers to set up the meetings every time and send out the notes. In a sense, you’re asserting yourself into a role of leadership and I think that’s how we view it, but often times others view it as us putting ourselves in a position of servitude. This does not always service well when we are trying to be seen in a different light as a leader or advance to different ranks. This doesn’t mean you should never be the note taker or volunteer but it’s something to be cognitive about.”

Jen: “I would add to just be strategic with what you are doing. We have a lot on our plate that needs to get done, a lot of requests that come in and it’s easy to get bogged down on those day-to-day requests that come in and come Friday, you realize you haven’t done anything to move your association or your career forward. What you must do is take time to put it on your calendar, your phone on do not disturb and make yourself inaccessible to be able to take time to get projects done that need to be done. Sometimes you need to sacrifice or delegate the smaller tasks to others so you can focus on the bigger projects.”

Kelly: “One of the ways I find time to do professional development and learn new things is through podcasts. I’ve found them very helpful to listen to them in the car on my way to and from work and just fitting them in where I can and where it makes sense.”

Tiffany: How do you bring your authentic self and your value into what you do every day?

Jen: “For me, leading an association is not what people who know me would ever think I would do. I am very much an introvert and while I am very good at getting things done, I am not the biggest people person. If you get me one-on-one, I’ll talk to you all day but if you put me in front of a big group of people, I am not necessarily going to be that person where people would think I am the leader of this association.

However, I have found a way to turn the weaknesses that society could perceive it as into ways that can work for me. Still make the connections that need to be made in my association and at the end of the day, go home and do something for me that I know will recharge my batteries as an introvert and by Monday morning, I’ll be ready to go.”

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