Looking back, I probably could have taken the Certified Association Executive (CAE) exam ten years ago. I had just completed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Organizational Management (IOM) program. With more than a decade of experience working for membership-based organizations, I knew about the CAE credential but, to be honest, I didn’t really consider myself an association executive. With a bachelor’s degree in journalism Indiana University, I saw myself as a communication professional who just happened to work for associations.
I would have been quick to tell you that I loved my work creating publications, websites, public relations campaigns, advertising buys, media contacts, and event publicity for my association and its members. My door was always open to members, who were primarily small business owners, and they frequently stopped by the office to chat as they drove between job sites. I was always happy for an opportunity to talk with members, whether it was brainstorming about ways to improve their marketing messages or sharing my expertise on emerging communication strategies like social media. I even pitched in to help take photos of their latest projects and holiday celebrations.
But when I joined Raybourn Group International, I began to realize my years of working with associations and dozens of volunteer committees, board leaders, budgets, government affairs initiatives, membership campaigns, and technology upgrades had led me to roles outside of the basic communication practitioner cubbyhole. I was, in fact, a seasoned professional with lots of experience and knowledge about how associations needed to function and evolve to meet the needs of their members and their industries.
So, while I could have taken the CAE exam many years ago, I’m not sure that I would have been successful. At that time, I didn’t have the deep connections to other association professionals that I eventually built over time and that led me to where I am in my career today.
The most important part of my CAE success was being part of a study team. I was fortunate to have two Raybourn colleagues to study with me. But we also participated in a local study group with a number of our peers throughout the city of Indianapolis as well as an national study group.
My advice for others who are preparing for the CAE exam is to reach out to CAEs in your area—either in person or online—to ask for their advice, suggestions, and to refine your study plan. Ask them to hold you accountable. Find colleagues and peers who planning to take the exam to review study scenarios and questions with you. Talk through the questions you get right and the ones you get wrong. It’s not the answer that’s important, it’s the reasoning and logic you use to arrive at the answer. Having diverse experiences and viewpoints on which to draw invaluable to the process.
Learning how to succeed in the association management field takes time. Take advantage of all the networking opportunities that come your way. Ask those whose work you respect to mentor you. Find ways to keep expanding your knowledge and skills. And when the time is right for you to sit for the CAE exam, you’ll be glad you did.