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Whether you're a novice or have years of industry experience, you still may be wondering: How can I become a leader in my association?

In this third installation of our “Association Leadership” series, host and Vice President of Sustainability at Can Manufacturers Institute, Scott Breen, interviews Jay Karen, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA). The two dive into what it takes to become an association leader, develop strategic growth plans, drive membership, and more.

Continue reading below for the full interview, which was edited for length and clarity.

S: Was there anything you did or experienced when you were younger that you think set you on the path to success generally? I know you pursued history degrees in undergraduate school and graduate school. Maybe there's something from there, or even before then? 

J: It goes back earlier. I joined as many organizations and clubs in high school and into college that I could without killing myself. If I’m going to join something, I’m going to try to lead it. An example is my sophomore year of high school I told my dad that I’m going to run for junior class vice president. And he said, “Why not run for president?” It didn't even occur to me that I could or should. And I didn't have a good answer as to why not, except for the competition, a football player named Popeye. It’s tough to beat a Popeye, but I ran, and I won. It was an opening to continue looking for leadership in whatever I pursued, and I loved it. 

I'll offer one more thing, Scott, is that when I was in college, I was student government president at Winthrop University my junior year, and that afforded me a seat at the table with the board of trustees. I was nervous as a kid, but because I did it, it got me comfortable being at the board table. Getting comfortable with that setting made me open to pursuing things that would be uncomfortable territory. 

S: Very interesting. I’m sure it’s nice to be in a safe space with a board where they’re not expecting you to present in a super effective way since you were a student. But back to that election, how did you beat Popeye? You had a fun nickname as well? 

J: Ha, no nickname. But what I found was, and this was another life lesson, is that being part of all these clubs gave me friends in every corner of all the niches, all the cliques. I was an athlete with being on the golf team, but also a nerd and a geek. 

S: It's interesting about these high school clubs, like, they're not associations per se, but they are still something people are voluntarily doing, they have a mission, and they are often focused on a particular issue. I feel like as an association leader, everyone needs to feel like you're in their corner and that you're not favoring that one company or that one function area. 

J: Yes, and when you’re leading these clubs, you have to articulate well what you are doing. The training of saying the best possible things in a short amount of time came from running in these elections.  

S: Makes total sense. And I know you weren’t doing these clubs to prepare to lead an association, so when did you come across associations as a potential career path?  

J: My first job out of college was working for Kappa Sigma Fraternity, and it happened to be at their national headquarters office, which allowed me to see and work with the governing board of the organization and understand the deployment of chapters and mission. 

It was great, but then I moved to Charleston, South Carolina in 1997 with the purpose of getting my masters in history to then teach high school social studies. When I moved there, a really good friend of mine, Carrie Lyndrup, who later became my wife, her mother worked as the meeting planner at this place called the National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA). I needed some cash for my pocket as a grad student so I said sure when Carrie said her mom needed an assistant. It was a part-time job that became full-time only two weeks into it. I thought it was so cool since I had an affinity for golf and didn’t know these sort of associations existed. I liked it so much I went part-time with my studies. I stayed for ten years at NGCOA working several different jobs. I became a student of association management and started pursuing my Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential. I also went to an American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) conference where well-known association executives like Jeffrey Shields and Chip Deal spoke passionately about membership marketing, and I ate it all up. 

S: I agree in the sense that I've come to love it. Like even studying for the CAE, I was like I would read this for fun. How to communicate better, lead better, develop better strategy. All so interesting. So, you mentioned doing all these different roles. Do you think that’s important to being an association leader?  

J: 100 percent. It allows you as the CEO to have legitimacy with all your direct reports since you have first-hand experience with all these functions. 

Of all my roles, Director of Membership was the most multifaceted and allowed me to be close to the members themselves. That role prepared me to best speak to and serve the members, as well as explain the value of membership. 

S: That makes sense. Okay. And what have you most enjoyed about working in associations? 

J: Certainly, one is the energy. It’s energizing to be with members that want to do good work and make changes to benefit the entire industry. I’ve also been energized representing the underdog, such as the bed and breakfasts within the broader lodging industry. 

S: I like both of those. Let's talk current role now. You're responsible for overseeing the only trade association dedicated exclusively to golf owners and operators. I imagine there’s so many things you could do to serve golf owners and operators. Something I struggle with in my job is how do I be disciplined and find the things that are going to deliver the most value, but also, I can do with the resources that I have. So how do you develop your strategy and determine what you should and shouldn't be doing so that you deliver the most value to your golf course owners and operators? 

J: Yeah, that is the perennial challenge for us as association executives, what to say yes to and what to say no to. It's hard to say no because we're people pleasers. You know, we have a membership to please, we have a board to please, we have a media in our industry to please. You can't have a posture of nope, we’re full; you have to leave the door open for good ideas and at least to hear these things. 

So that's one thing. You also have to do active listening. And that that comes in many ways, whether it's sitting in the classrooms at your own conferences, being at the bar and hearing what the members have on their minds in the hallways at these conferences, perusing social media, etc. LinkedIn is where it's at for me. I pay attention to what happens on LinkedIn because that is where the business conversations are happening and people are complaining or advocating for something in the golf industry. If I hear a thread of similar conversations happening in disparate places, it's going to tell me, wow, something's going on here. 

We also formally ask the members what’s on their mind, what’s their biggest challenges. We publish something once a year called the golf business pulse report based on a survey of our members. 

S: And then you publish it publicly? 

J: We do. We publish it for our members. And Scott, the reality is reading this gets you probably 60 percent of the way towards providing value. It's up to us as association leaders to anticipate what they may need. It's like that old Henry Ford statement. If I had asked the customer what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse. One thing I do to anticipate what’s coming is every week I get beyond trade publications and read the Saturday edition of The Wall Street Journal. I read this and try to synthesize it and connect the dots for the golf industry.  

S: This The Wall Street Journal Saturday edition, do you get the hard copy and sit at the breakfast table with a pen reading through it? 

J: I do. Yeah, it’s nice. 

S: I like what you're saying about getting outside of the echo chamber of what people say inside the industry. Do you take that information and other inputs to set up a three- or five-year strategic plan?  

J: We don’t in the old-fashioned sense. We have our strategic areas of work that we call ACES—advocacy, commercial programs, education, and sustainability, as in continued operations rather than environmental sustainability. We have goals every year, but it's not laid out in a traditional three- or five-year strategic plan way. 

S: I know one focus area for you is communications. You take the time to write these CEO perspective articles, you're writing on LinkedIn. I know those sorts of things take some time. Why do you do them and what are the pathways you found most effective in telling the story of NGCOA or the golf course owners and operators so that it penetrates? 

J: A long-time member and former executive director, said to me one time, “Jay, members love it when you talk dirty to them.” And what he meant by that was, you're talking the issues to them. You're talking about things that anger them, concern them, that they're fearful of. It's not fluff. I've done that as long as I've been a CEO. And so, I probably use 80 percent of my LinkedIn, my column in the magazine, my speaking, etc. on the issues and only 20 percent on propaganda—why you should join, the great work we’re doing. Most association executives that I see flip that, doing 80 percent on propaganda. You know, when you dive into the issues, you’re often getting into some controversial stuff that may make some members a little uncomfortable. But educating members on how to approach key issues is how you provide extra value.  

S: Yeah, I mean, it probably makes them feel like you're one of us, like you're not only talking dirty, but you're getting dirty, you're in the weeds. 

J: Yes. I’ve gotten literally dirty working at golf courses and bed and breakfasts doing jobs at the facilities to understand their operations like washing dishes and changing sheets. It gives me legitimacy and shows them I care.  

S: Yeah, that’s cool. I should probably go do that at a can making facility for sure. And then I know you got your CAE in 2003, and you're on the board of ASAE. So how did those sort of certifications, leadership roles, how do they enable you to be a more effective association leader? I know you said like, even back in the day, you wanted to be involved in all the things, but those all take time. You must think about is this really delivering value back? 

J: Certainly the CAE exposes you to the other domains of association management, even before you have the ability to practice it like financial operations. Beyond that practical knowledge, being part of ASAE gave me the opportunity to sit at the table with other association professionals, which I don’t get to do as much as those in DC with my being in Charleston. Being with other wonderful people in the same profession trying to solve the same problem gives you energy and new ways of thinking. In particular as a CEO, having that peer community is important since it's just you at the top within your own organization, and the board is your boss. 

S: I hadn't thought about the extra value that would come once you're at the top of your organization, having a peer network that you're regularly tapping into and engaging with by volunteering makes total sense. I want to move to meetings. You've got your annual meeting coming up. How do you keep the meetings fresh and delivering sufficient value? How do you make sure that when people leave, they're like, okay, that was fun, but also now I'm enabled to be better at my job. 

J: Oh, man, it's not easy. In part because success sometimes begets repeating. Also because this is the thing, everybody at the end of a conference, nine out of 10 times, everybody feels good about it and enjoys being together. One of the things that we try to employ at NGCOA that I've told my team is like, make sure that every two years, there is something remarkably new happening at the conference. Not just a new theme but something that's fresh and different. For example, last year we opened with the entire stage set up as a quiz show, and we had members competing. It was fun as hell, memorable, and different. 

Honestly it's also just listening. Listening to what's happening and making sure your intent on bringing something fresh to the table, not going after the same well of speakers, being very intentional about connecting the dots between that foresight and what's happening out in society. 

S: Yeah, I like using foresight not only to guide the association better, but to also bring some fresh ideas to the conference. 

J: Yeah. There's a lesson here too. Back in 2016, I'd been on the job for about a year back at NGCOA as CEO. I presented an idea to the board of directors, like, let's do a technology conference, and we'll do it in the fall of 2017. Half the board was like, no way, you're crazy. They said that we're too busy at the golf course through the summer and early fall. I said, let’s bet on this. The board gave me the flashing yellow light to do it, which I take as a green light. I remember telling the team before the meeting happened, this is going to be an every two-year event because we need time and space for technology to evolve. It ended up being so successful in many ways. The attendance was great. The sponsors loved it. We got seduced into doing it in 2018 with that success and sponsors wanting it. And it was not as successful. It was a financial success, but the attendance was not there. It was a lesson to listen to your instincts on this stuff and give time and space even when you have success. 

S: Yeah, we're having something similar on our end where we did the first Global Aluminum Can Sustainability Summit in 2022. Everyone loved it, but we consciously decided not to do it again until 2024 so we had something new to say and there was enough time for progress to be made. So, the last section here is some rapid-fire questions on lessons learned. What's something that you feel like leaders of associations versus leaders of other sectors need to be particularly skilled at or pay attention to? 

J: For-profit company leaders live and die by financial success. For the association executive, financial success is a must but so is mission success, right? So, it feels like we're serving two masters. You need to be more well-rounded in your education and knowledge to be successful in the association space. 

S: And then what are you most proud of in your work in the association world? 

J: I'm going to offer a few things. One is in each of my three CEO gigs, I was able to get the association on a positive trajectory. I’m also proud of the advocacy victories that we've had over time. It’s gratifying to convert naysayers into champions for your industry. 

S: Totally. It's fun when you represent an industry where there's a story that you honestly believe in, and then when you get that chance to tell it, and you see that light bulb go off to who you're talking to. Now let’s talk learning moments. Are there any mistakes you made in your career that seemed calamitous at the time but proved to be a good learning moment? 

J: Definitely. It was when I had the privilege of running the association for innkeepers. It was a for-profit association, but towards the end of my tenure, I was orchestrating a movement to turn it into a not-for-profit. And in order to turn it into a not-for-profit, there was a process of having to satisfy the investors of the for-profit entity. I thought that the logic of becoming a not-for-profit would win the day. I later realized that I had not taken care of the emotional needs of the people who had invested their money in the association years prior. So, I learned that if you don't take care of the emotional needs first, then no amount of logic is going to win. They eventually made that transition but after I left. 

S: I'm sure that was gratifying though to see they eventually did it, but good lesson there for sure. And then last thing, if you were writing a tweet to young aspiring association leaders with your best advice for becoming an association leader, what would you say?  

J: Get involved in ASAE in every way that you can; what you give in time, energy, and expertise to the association community will come back tenfold.  

S: I mean, it'd be not so great if we as association leaders weren't talking about the importance of being involved in the association serving us.  

J: Yes. We have to practice what we preach. 

Scott Breen
Post by Scott Breen
February 27, 2024
Scott is the Sr. VP of Sustainability at Can Manufactures Institute. He has a unique background with policy and legal training; deep knowledge of sustainability and the circular economy; and experience in project management, stakeholder engagement, and communications. He also is the co-host of successful podcast: Sustainability Defined.