Change as a Full-Time Job
By: Mark Athitakis
The Executive of the Future
Stop us if you've heard this one before: Associations resist change. Associations are slow-moving ships. Associations have a "we've always done it that way" mentality.
That's not what we see. This magazine has always featured leaders who reject conventional thinking. And in this special package you'll meet three who embody the essential skills of next-generation association management. For Nathan Victoria, it means possessing the kind of flexibility that lets you take charge in any context. For Paula Feldman, it means knowing that research implies providing solutions for members, not just pumping out data. And for D.A. Abrams, CAE, it means recognizing that a commitment to diversity and inclusion is about more than doing the right thing—it's about reaching new markets and meeting business goals.
Want to see what the association executive of the future looks like? Meet three of them, right here.
Nathan Victoria has a method for getting ahead in association management. Call it strategic squeaking.
Victoria, 29, is director of member engagement and student initiatives at NASPA—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. Before that he was the assistant director of social media. And before that he was assistant director of student programs. In fact, his job title has changed four times in the five years he's been at the association.
All that job-changing says something about the ever-shifting face of association work—especially when you deal with social media and student members, as Victoria has. But Victoria has done much of the shifting himself. His story is an object lesson on the need for association leaders to think ahead and not just to blend responsibilities but to take firm control of them.
"I'm sure you have heard of the aphorism 'the squeaky wheel gets the oil,'" he says. "The squeaky wheel is also annoying and sometimes, after enough oil, it just gets flat-out replaced." Where once he was "that guy that they rolled their eyes at," he's since learned to pick his battles in a way that captures both his interests and the best interests of the organization. "Throughout my time here at NASPA, I constantly think, 'Is this something that is worth addressing, and what person is the best individual to address this with?'"
Victoria began that process at NASPA early. He started as an intern working on meetings, but he quickly landed a staff position handling its emerging-leader program. By 2008 he recognized that social media was increasingly important to NASPA's student members, and over time he pushed the organization to get involved on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. NASPA had no formal social media plan (or dedicated staff person, before Victoria), but he successfully argued for its necessity.
Not that he asked for permission, really; he just went ahead and did it. "Even though we do have professional levels [on the staff], there's never been an 'I need to get approval' culture," he says. "It's more [that I] report back that I'm trying this initiative than, 'Hey, I'm thinking about doing this; do you think maybe we can do it?' A feature of NASPA is that if there's not a financial implication, I really have free rein."
NASPA president Kevin Kruger says that annual job restructuring is not common practice at NASPA, but Victoria's efforts on social media prompted the organization to be more flexible. "As we decided to make a more tangible investment in our social media efforts, we couldn't afford a full-time position," he says. "But we came to an arrangement where he'd do it half-time. That was tremendous. It got us from zero to a couple of stages ahead of that."
Over time, the degree to which Victoria has worked on social media has changed, from part-time to full-time to "10 to 20 percent" today. Not everything he's tried has worked: An effort to encourage attendees to sign up for Twitter at the registration kiosks at NASPA's 2010 annual meeting didn't do much for members who just wanted to get their badges and welcome bags. But he learned a valuable lesson from that experience: NASPA could cultivate an online community, but it couldn't impose it on members. "Instead of building community, it was more about finding where community was and integrating NASPA," he says.
Tasks, Not Titles
Victoria's shifting role in social media reflects the way it's been rewired in plenty of associations, transforming from a role that's assigned to one (usually young) staff member to a function that's distributed throughout the organization. "Social media is now a part of every piece of programmatic work we do," says Kruger, though it's retained a dedicated staff person to monitor it. "It's hard to do when you disperse it everywhere."
Victoria's rapid acquisition of responsibilities is unusual in today's association workforce, says Wendy Luke, an association HR consultant. However, she says, job roles are likely to become more iterative as members of older generations retire to make way for younger employees who define themselves more by tasks
"Millennials are going to be much less hierarchical," she says. Victoria's path suggests how workers need to position themselves for that shift. "It's based on a recognition that [the organization] is going to change, and therefore, because it is changing, you're going to change too."
There are obvious upsides to being flexible and ambitious in an organization that's willing to accommodate new ideas. The downside is that there's nothing in NASPA's compensation tables or org charts that matched Victoria's career path. So last year he was actively job-hunting. "Having director-level responsibilities but not having a director-level title or pay was frustrating," he says.
Those conversations with Kruger led to another retooling of his job: The words "social media" were knocked out of his title, clearing the way for responsibilities that played to his chief strength, which was working with students.
Today he manages NASPA's undergraduate placement exchanges and member onboarding. He does his bit on the social media front as well, but Victoria recognized that an essential part of his happiness on the job required direct connection with members.
"For me, regardless of the changing nature of associations and jobs, I needed to figure out, what are the core things that I love? What is keeping me in the profession? And for me, it was that student contact," he says.
It's a cliché in the association world that staffers wear a lot of hats, as if everybody in the industry were frustrated haberdashers. Victoria would like to retool the hat metaphor. Instead of thinking of association work as leaping from role to role (or hat to hat), consider a single-hat fix: Look for opportunities to blend multiple roles into one effective job that allows you to use your best skills. "I see my job as one entity, where I'm able to rotate," he says.
That kind of ability to integrate multiple roles instead of merely stacking them, Victoria says, will be the critical skill for the next generation of association professionals to master.
"If you want to succeed in the association sector, it's essential to the job," he says.
"I think it's essential to new professionals coming into this field. Even if we don't know social media, we'll get tasked with social media: 'The young guy will know how to do it!'
"But I was able to say that it can't just be a tack-on. I needed to be creative with my job description, and young association professionals need to be able to say, '[The job is] more than this, here's research, here's what I've seen other places do.'"
Mark Athitakis is a senior editor at Associations Now. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Getting out of the weeds to work on new initiatives. There will always be envelopes to stuff and databases to manage, but there are also new programs that need to be correct right off the bat.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Our five-day undergraduate leadership retreat, which brings together 32 students. Seeing how much they learn about themselves and the profession in a short amount of time is priceless.
What skills do you think someone needs to have to be successful in your position?
An understanding of systems: being able to see how my department influences, connects, challenges, and supports other departments' work.
- "The First Steps to Leadership," by Beth Ziesenis, Associations Now, July 2012
- "How to Keep Student Members When They Become Young Professionals," by Lowell M. Aplebaum, CAE, Membership Developments, June 2011
- Through the Maze: Careers in Association Management: A Guide for Young Professionals Interested in Associations, by ASAE 2010 Leadership Academy Class
- "Associations in 2020," Interview by Jennifer J. Salopek, Associations Now, August 2010