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In this “Association Leadership” series interview,  host and Can Manufacturers Institute Vice President of Sustainability Scott Breen interviews Trevor Mitchell, current Executive Director and CEO of American Mensa, and future President and CEO of the International Association of Venue Managers. The two discuss career progression, the impact of early experiences in shaping career paths, the importance of tailoring responses in job interviews, the benefits of involvement in local associations, 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? Maybe something in your marketing and management studies at Columbia College?

T: When I was in high school, when people asked what do you want to do when you grow up, my answer was always I want to do something where I work with people. I want to impact lives. What set me up to do that via associations was my time in high school as a member of Future Business Leaders of America, FBLA. It resonated with me, and I was a national officer my senior year of high school. It came up late in the interview for my first association job. It was not going well so I said, “What are you looking for?” They said they wanted someone who can work with chapters and volunteers and somebody who knew Robert's Rules of Order. I went oh, I did all that in FBLA. I sent a new version of my resume the next day that reflected this and then got the job.

S: That’s a great question to ask in an interview because it allows you to better tailor your answers to how you deliver what they need. Were you targeting associations with that first association job?

T: I had moved to Kansas City for a job and after one week, they closed their doors.

S: Oh my goodness.

T: Yes. They didn’t tell me anything. I was technically unemployed for eight months as I did consulting work for my previous organization. I was about to be hired by a company but then they decided they didn’t want to pay the required fees to my temp organization. Fortunately, the HR person said my sister’s organization is looking for someone. That organization was ARMA International. As soon as I got there I was like yep, this is what I’m supposed to do.

S: Is this because it relates to what you said earlier about wanting a job where you work with people and impact lives?

T: Yes, it's seeing the impact we have on other people, seeing what really motivates them, and helping them achieve things. With ARMA, you may not think there’s an important mission there with records and information management. However, people were really passionate about what they did and how having good systems in place to protect the organization really made a difference. Switching gears to my current work for American Mensa, while I don't qualify for membership, I can relate to individuals who feel like they aren't seen or treated as an outsider. We create a place where they feel accepted and normal. Creating those environments for people has a major impact that has a ripple effect.

S: I like the ripple effect. And is seeing the impact you could have via associations why you jumped into the Certified Association Executive credential?

T: Yes. Four and a half months in at ARMA, I was like I want to make this a career. I learned about the CAE but then realized I had to wait four and a half more months to be eligible to take it. I prepped ahead of time, and I registered as soon as I was eligible.

S: I respect that. And I know you also jumped in with the local associations for association professionals in Dallas, Kansas City, Texas, etc. I haven’t engaged the DC one yet. What are the advantages of these more local groups versus ASAE, and should young association leaders participate in them?

T: For me, it's created a different set of community outside of ASAE. It allowed me to get more involved, as well as contribute to our industry with writing, facilitation, etc. that you may not have the opportunity to do through ASAE since it’s such a behemoth.

S: It sounds like with the state and local ones, you can be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, perhaps. And then I see the many impressive letters after your name here and the executive MBA. Why go for that? Do you find the business training is important for running an association?

T: There are transferable skills around marketing, accounting, etc. Ultimately, a tax-exempt association is a business. Also, I pursued the executive MBA because I was at the point in my career where I was starting to want to make the leap up, and I wasn't getting anywhere. A recruiter and an executive coach both told me that I should consider getting my MBA. Even putting on my resume anticipated MBA graduation 2016 opened some doors.

S: I imagine others look at your success today and say oh, he must have rocketed up with no problems. But I’m listening to your story, and I see how you successfully pivoted during a bad interview, when you weren’t moving up, etc. You had roadblocks, but you stayed diligent.

T: I was, and I learned to see where there were detours and make jumps to get me to my destination even if it wasn’t the direct linear path that I had envisioned.

S: Got it. Let's talk about your current role. You're responsible for the general day-to-day administration of the affairs of the organization. You're involved in both American Mensa Committee and its subsidiary foundation, Mensa Foundation. When I saw that, it intrigued me since you have to think about both the main association and its foundation. Is it always complementary? Is it sometimes more complicated than it needs to be because you're the head of both?

T: It’s not uncommon, but it is kind of unique. First, while I am the director and CEO of both, I have a director of my foundation who handles more of the day-to-day of the foundation. That allows me to give sole focus to American Mensa, but I still sit on every board meeting, participate in strategic planning, etc. Most of my focus is on helping support the staff of each organization to understand priorities and how we’ll accomplish our goals. We’ve been working on making sure the synergies between the two are better understood and where they should act independently. We also have a board member from each that serves on the opposite board as a proxy.

S: Is this cross-pollination of boards a common approach?

T: It’s been that way since before I arrived. I’m not sure if it’s common. I’ve also seen where a portion of the board is on both.

S: That's interesting. And then I saw one of your focus areas is growing membership and donors. So what have you found to be that best lever for you to pull to attract new members to the organization? I know you were in member services for a while. Are there little tricks you've picked up over time that aren't necessarily the obvious stuff?

T: My membership experience has helped me a lot. I still follow this principle that we are in the business to help members identify and solve the problems that face them. We have to understand those problems and find solutions to create a value proposition that is unique to us that really serves them. Problem plus solution equals membership value. American Mensa is unique since we have two barriers to entry into the organization—qualifying to be a member by passing an IQ test and paying to join. We help people overcome the mental barriers to passing the IQ test.

S: So you're helping people before they take the test, even though they're not eligible to be members?

T: Yes. We remind them IQ is about how fast you can process information, not how much information you have in your head.

S: And I imagine if they see that your association helped them pass the test, they’d be like, oh yeah, I love them, they helped me pass the test, I’m definitely going to join.

T: Yes. Some also join out of curiosity. But why they stay is for the community, the sense of acceptance It's always touching whenever you run into one of our youth members who's like, I didn't realize there were other people like me and you see their eyes just well up with tears because they feel seen, and they feel accepted. And you're just like, this is why we do what we do. We appeal to their logical mind to get them in and their emotional mind to keep them.

S: Makes sense. And is there an age minimum?

T: Our youngest member tends to be about the age of three, and our oldest member is about 106.

S: Wow! Yeah. That three-year-old must be giving you all their allowance for dues then. Now, I want to go back to the problem plus solution equals member value. How do you extract what those problems are without bothering people with a million surveys and such? Talk to people at conferences? Candid one-on-one conversations?

T: We always do a membership satisfaction survey at the end of our fiscal year. We also do a termination survey, so we see why people left. Beyond those survey data points, every month we sit down with the membership team, finance people, chapter leaders, and others that interact with members regularly to ask what themes they are seeing from members. Another source of information is reading what is being said in our online communities. With American Mensa, we’re not solving for an industry problem. It's what are they looking at from the organization?

S: Online community monitoring is interesting for those that have such a thing. You're also tasked with growing non-dues revenue. My association is basically all dues revenue. I’ve thought for a while that I could deliver a lot of value if I found sustainable, substantial non-dues revenue. Do you advise young association leaders to try to figure out new non-dues revenue?

T: I always encourage people to look at non-dues revenue but make sure it fits in with your strategic direction. Consider if it will help foster what the organization is trying to do and the effort that goes into getting these kinds of dollars. It also is important to think about the tax ramifications. The more you bring in, the more taxes you may have to pay, and it could potentially jeopardize your tax status. A good example of what creates non-dues revenue and value for our members is that we have an event, Mind Games, where board game manufacturers bring their games for our members to play and then the games that score in the top five from our members in attendance can put our brand on their box. It’s a win-win. Board game manufacturers love it, and it’s why 60 to 70 of them submit every year. Also, our members love it with the maximum 400 attendee spots selling out within a couple days of registration opening. Games like Apples-to-Apples have gotten our label through this event. We also heard from members they want better quality American Mensa merchandise that was fun. We switched providers to someone that could provide these kinds of products at a high quality level without us carrying a lot of inventory. We went from making $7,500 a year in royalties on merchandise to five years later netting more than $100,000.

S: Whoa, that's a big difference.

T: Yes. And the members are happier because it's diverse and better quality offerings. It was listening to what the members wanted, finding a solution that worked, and driving member value through a revenue source.

S: I love it. And then 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?

T: I think what we have to most remember is that associations are in the people business. Thinking of members as units or widgets is not sustainable in today's environment.

S: How do you best show, and not just tell, your members that you're looking at them as people and not as numbers?

T: A lot of it comes in how you talk to them. A good example of this was during the pandemic. Our fiscal year ends on April 1, and in 2020 when that day came, we didn’t terminate anyone that had not yet renewed. Our messaging was we are here for you. We don’t know what the future holds, but we are here together.

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

T: For me, it is seeing how we can make a difference in various things. When I took over at American Mensa, we weren’t making the most of the opportunities to bring in revenue, and staff morale was down since we weren’t empowering staff appropriately. I was able to double our revenue in the first year because I put people into the right things where they could lead and be creative after I set some guardrails.

S: Nice. It sounds like you set up the staff to do their best work. And then are there any mistakes you made in your career that seemed calamitous at the time but proved to be a good learning moment?

T: I’ve made several. I'm one of those people that I tend not to look at things as a mistake or a failure, but just as a lesson to learn. That said, one that does come to mind is from 2010. I was early in my career and very antsy. I was ready to move up and things weren't happening at the rate I had hoped. So, I left to take a job at a technology consulting company in the association space and moved to Colorado for it. I enjoyed the people and was good at it. However, I'll never forget the first time I went to a client site visit. I'm talking to them, and all my brain kept thinking is you're on the wrong side of this table. Not too long after that, my former director at the previous job left and the CEO called me with a Director of Member Services role. I was gone only two months. It worked out, but I should have taken the time to slow down for a minute and ask myself why am I making this decision? I have no regrets. I think it was a great life lesson for me that I’ve carried through with me. For example, I initially turned down a job at American Mensa because it wasn’t what I wanted. I said that I want my next job to be CEO so I need to be the number two and learning from the CEO. It turns out the current leader was looking for someone that could be her successor. A couple days after I said what I wanted, I had a different job description from the same organization, had an interview, and then had the job. That was all because I said this is what I want.

S: Yeah, that's important. It goes back to when you got that job at ARMA by asking what do you want from the person in this position? It's such a powerful question, like you saying what you want, but also hearing what those hiring for the job want. If you didn't bring up what you wanted, she might not have connected the dots of oh, this can be my internal succession candidate. And then, if you were writing a tweet to young, aspiring association leaders with your best advice for becoming an association leader, what would you say?

T: Be patient and enjoy the journey. I was too anxious earlier in my career looking for what was next as opposed to soaking it in. I've learned to be patient because the right thing will come along. In the meantime, take advantage of the opportunities that are afforded to you.

S: Got it. Be patient. This was so fun. Thanks for your time and sharing your many insights.


Scott Breen
Post by Scott Breen
June 10, 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.