Working on a professional association committee or project is a good way to get leadership experience quickly. The reason is simple: because of the number and variety of professional associations (such as the ABA and local bar associations, the International Coach Federation, Professional Photographers of America, Licensing Executives Society, etc.) and the number and variety of sections and committees within each, leadership opportunities are numerous.
Why should you consider involvement in a professional association?
- To grow your professional network. Having a broad group of colleagues will prove useful over the span of your career in ways you probably can’t even imagine right now. Networks are useful if you need to refer a client to someone in whom you have confidence, if you’re visiting another part of the country (or world) and need business resources, if you’re looking for a new position, on and on and on.
- To contribute to the profession. The work produced by each group will vary, but you may have an opportunity to contribute to a report studying the challenges faced by women attorneys of color, the latest revision to substantive or procedural rules of your profession, or to track legislation that effects your clients. You can use your skills and develop them further through this work.
- To advance your business development goals. If your practice is supported by referrals from colleagues, professional associations can create the opportunity for you to become known by your potential referral sources. (But note: if referrals from colleagues are uncommon in your field, don’t hide out in a safe professional group and pretend you’re going to get new business there.)
- Because it’s fun. When you find a group that’s a good fit for you, networking and conferences become a time to reconnect with friends and accomplish something of professional benefit.
So, how do you get started?
- Identify the groups that might be a good fit for you based on your goals and interests. Do you want to be involved with a local group or a national group? (If you’re looking to create a referral network, this is probably the #1 question you’ll need to answer.)
- Next, identify a subgroup of that organization that you find interesting. Look through the sections, committees and subcommittees, or the list of projects that the group maintains. Your goal is to identify a small working group that will be a good fit for your skills, your interest, and your goals — in that order.
- Working groups almost always need help. Perhaps you’re already a passive member of a group, receiving information and maybe attending CE programs. To reap the benefit of membership, you must be active. Decide how much time you have available and what kind of assistance you’d like to offer. You may be able to get a feel for current projects from the group’s website.
- Contact the leader of the subgroup you’d like to join and volunteer. For all but the most prestigious groups, I can almost guarantee that a committee chair’s favorite words to hear are, “I’d like to help!” Find out how you can make a contribution. Look for something fairly short-term, so you aren’t boxed in and you can prove yourself quickly. And, of course, do a great job.
- Attend the business meetings of your select group. Most professional organizations meet at least annually, and those who attend are the leaders. If you want to become a leader, meet them. Learn more about the group’s activity, who’s involved, what its history is, and how things operate. Ask about the leadership track — how might you become a committee leader, a section leader, or an association leader? Contribute to the conversation and volunteer where appropriate. Show your interest and your ability.
- Once you’ve taken on a few projects and done well, you will start to advance. Depending on the group, you can probably expect to become a subcommittee vice chair (or some equivalent title) within a couple of years, and sometimes much faster. Should you choose to advance in leadership, you’ll know much more about how to do so in your selected group; if not, you can probably continue at your current level of involvement and accrue additional benefits.