Monday, March 4, 2013

What Kind of Professional Are You?

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I should have dinner with colleagues more often (see here and here for my two previous posts). The third thought-provoking subject we got into was whether it was better to think of oneself as an association professional or as a professional in the industry your association represents.

Let me explain. The association I work for represents the fluid power industry. Am I going to be more successful if I think of myself as an association professional serving the fluid power industry or as a fluid power professional who works at the industry's trade association?

A colleague argued the latter--that the only way I can succeed in today's ultra-competitive environment is to become a member of the industry I'm trying to serve. I have to know my customer, she argued. Speak their language. Walk in their shoes. Live in their world. How else can I create the programs and services they need for the future? Not just what they tell me they want--but what they need before they even know it. 

I have a lot of sympathy for this perspective. Indeed, I've written about it before. But I wouldn't go so far as to say that the only way to have this kind of success is to become a member of the industry you're serving. I would argue--and did at dinner--that such habits and practices are what epitomizes high-functioning association management.

Knowing my customer, speaking their language, walking in their shoes, and living in their world doesn't make me a fluid power professional. It makes me a skilled association professional, and these are among the tools that I need to wield effectively if I'm going to bring new value to my members and new competencies to my profession.

In my own situation, I know that I wasn't hired because of my advanced knowledge and understanding of the fluid power industry. At the time I was hired, I had none. I was hired because I knew how to manage an association--and that is a unique package of skills that was recognized and needed by the industry I was brought in to serve.

And losing sight of that fact, however well-intentioned the reason for doing so, jeopardizes more than I am willing to risk.

This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at


  1. This is always an interesting debate, and I'm sure your dinner conversation on this topic was lively. I'm inclined to agree with your perspective, Eric, in general, but I think it could be looked at differently for associations that are large enough to have both a CEO and a COO. In those cases, it might be preferable to have a CEO from the industry to be the face of the association, someone the members see as one of their own. In industries where the association CEO is heavily involved in lobbying on its behalf, for instance, I could see it being important to have that direct industry experience. Meanwhile, back at the office, the COO is the executive who does the real execution, and this person ought to be a strong association professional, to counterbalance what the CEO might lack in that regard. Not all associations have that luxury, though, so in other cases, I'd say the CEO should be a skilled association management pro. I think there's less of a learning curve to learn the context of an industry's needs than there is to learn the skills of association management.

    1. You raise a good point, Joe, one that didn't come up in our lively dinner conversation. Thanks for the contribution.