Bite the Bullet, and Be the Change

I’ve been writing about my early experiences in the association world. Last week I focused on the importance of saying yes to opportunity. But what happens when your own enthusiasm lands you in a painful place. Sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and bite the bullet.

I was a starry-eyed new graduate with a degree from Valparaiso University in my hand and a burning desire to change the world in my heart. My goal was to some day be an executive director for a non-profit. I quickly realized that the climb to the corner office might be steep. After struggling to live on $14,000 a year and manage a schedule that had me running 24/7, I crossed over to the dark side and took a job with Panasonic. It was great to have some money in my pocket. I liked my boss and the work was interesting, but I knew I had sold out. I couldn’t leave my vision behind; I doggedly continued my search for non-profit nirvana.

My break came when I landed a job in the Communications Department at the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. I’m not sure what I expected, but the transition from a sleek corporate office to a specialty medical association was like a downgrade from the Ritz to Motel 6. The technology was a luddite’s dream. We produced the newsletter on a printing press. The creature comforts matched our humble equipment. A puddle of water, from leaky pipes, typically greeted visitors to the women’s restroom. Work was not my salvation. I wasn’t managing disaster relief or feeding the homeless, I was typing, filing and writing an occasional, barely-newsworthy press release.

I called my former boss at Panasonic and tearfully begged him for my old job. I’ll never forget that conversation. He said, “Sherry, you’ve wanted to work at a non-profit since I first met you. Give it 30 days. If you still hate it, you can come back, but only as a sales engineer.” It was a terrific offer. I’d get a company car and a big raise. But sales engineers had to master highly technical information, and I wasn’t sure I was prepared. I sweated out my 30 day sentence, praying that an answer to my dilemma would be revealed.

A glimmer of hope came when a colleague recognized my budding interest in technology (I was the only other person in the office who knew how to use a PC.) and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He proposed that we work together to build the association’s first website. I wasn’t sure exactly what I had signed up for. But it sounded exciting. At 5 o’clock I went straight to Barnes and Noble and bought as many books on HTML as my paycheck would allow.

We worked around the clock. The homepage featured a spinning brain. This catchy animation was followed by doors to an operating room that swung dramatically open to reveal the Thinker complete with site navigation running down his back. Naturally, the neurosurgeons wanted to highlight their expertise, so the Thinker’s skin peeled away to reveal the nerve-endings. It was slick enough to warrant a huge promotional campaign and an annual meeting launch. We handed out branded dial-up programs from AOL so that the doctors could experience their new technological wonder. What we hadn’t counted on was the interminable amount of time it took our amazing pages to load.

Two months later we were back at the drawing board trying to untangle the complexity we had created. Due to the kind of political rough weather that sometimes rocks associations, our creation never got resurrected. The experience did, however, teach me just enough to be dangerous. I also learned that challenging an unpleasant situation with your own grit and determination can be exhilarating.

The work we did on that first website was often grueling, especially because we were such neophytes. Being among the first is never easy. You wonder whether all the time and effort you’re investing on this new venture is worthwhile. You ask yourself if by exploring uncharted territory, you are courting an ending rather than building a beginning.

When you experience that terrible doubt, it’s critical to remember that innovation is the soul of progress. Without the struggle, there is no moving forward. This is an especially valuable lesson for association professionals to consider now. Culture, work, and technology are advancing so rapidly. We are forced to adapt to change whether we want to or not. I say—

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Accept the challenge! Be there first!

  • Revamp your outdated membership program.
  • Launch a rebranding.
  • Cut loose from tired initiatives.
  • Develop that new product.

You might stumble, but there is a good chance you’ll succeed beyond your wildest dreams. What I learned on my first website project was invaluable. I grew to like the job I hated, and I developed skills that prepared me for the opportunities that launched my career as a consultant.

Stay tuned to this space to follow along on my ride.

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