Interested in leadership, diversity, and the power of personal growth in a professional setting? Well, we’ve got something exciting to share with you! Welcome to the first article of our new series where host, Scott Breen, interviews association leaders to highlight where they’ve been and where they’re going. Read as Scott digs into their secrets to success and the lessons they've learned along their journey. To kick the series off, we’re excited to present the following conversation with Michelle Duke. We can’t wait to dive in so without further ado…
A Note from the Author
This dialogue is the first in a series of regular conversations with senior leaders at associations where they share how they got into the association field, how they have been successful, and what lessons they have learned along the way. I started this dialogue series for two reasons. One is because I wanted to talk to senior leaders at associations to gain insights that I could use to grow as an association executive and better serve my members. The other is because my hope is that through sharing these conversations my fellow young, aspiring association leaders can learn actionable insights as well.
I currently am Vice President of Sustainability at Can Manufacturers Institute, which represents U.S. metal can makers and their suppliers.
I wanted to talk to Michelle Duke (full bio here) since she:
This dialogue was edited for length and clarity.
S: Is there anything you did or experienced when you were younger that you think set you on the path to success?
M: At my Catholic high school, we had to volunteer for two hours once a week. My service was at an alternative school for boys that had behavioral issues. I bonded with those students and wrote about the experience for class. Little did I know the priest that was teaching the course shared my story with a newspaper reporter. I had wanted to be a journalist so when the newspaper reporter came to the school, I asked to visit her at work. I then told her my name and she said, “Actually, I’m here to interview you.” She wrote the article, and I later had the privilege of working with her through a high school diversity initiative at her newspaper. It launched my career. During college, I continued to work for the paper, adding more and more hours to the point that when I graduated, I was already been working full-time with benefits.
S: Sounds like you made your own luck several times early on. So how did you come across associations and make that transition?
M: I’ve never been one to just sit and do one thing. In addition to writing at the paper, I eventually came to manage the very program that I went through in high school. This and other volunteer projects built up my project management skillset. This was fortunate since in 1998 I was notified on a Monday, which happened to be my birthday, that on that following Friday the paper would fold.
S: I’m so sorry.
M: Actually, I was kind of excited. I was in my early 20’s so I was excited for what was next. I started calling around to mentors, which have been critical in my career. One of them mentioned a position at the Newspaper Association of America in a diversity-related role. I got the job with my experience as a journalist and running a minority youth program. I was so excited! I thought I was going to newspaper heaven with a bunch of old-timers that could impart lessons of working at newspapers. Turns out only a couple people there had any newspaper experience. This opened my eyes to serving a field rather than necessarily working within it.
S: And now you’ve been in the association world for a number of years. What have you enjoyed most about this experience versus grinding as a journalist?
M: It’s wonderful being able to look holistically rather than be so insular. I love that the work we do is all about making the careers of broadcast professionals better. I’ve also had the rewarding experience of getting to know so many people in the industry. Now I can use those contacts to help start or improve programs, and they step up.
S: You have spearheaded so many initiatives. How do you decide which to resource and execute?
M: Data is key. Before we had to rely on word-of-mouth data but now we have more hard data. There’s also member input. I hear a comment about something the industry needs and then I’ll start doing my homework. One of our most successful programs was conceived by a member who then raised the money to do it. Twenty-five years later we’re still operating that program.
S: What was that program?
M: The Broadcast Leadership Training Program. It trains, senior level broadcasters, particularly women and people of color, but it's for everyone. It’s an executive MBA style program to train broadcast professionals to own or operate a radio or television station. Over 65 percent of our graduates have been promoted or transitioned into a more corporate role. We have 40 graduates who have owned or currently own radio and television stations.
M: Another tactic is to do a needs assessment. I did one early on and saw we lacked programming for those in the middle of their careers. So, I created a mentoring program and also a technology program to train people for what the digital transition required.
S: And after you come up with these programs, how do you sell it?
M: Data, building relationships with decisionmakers so there’s trust, and tying your program to the organization’s mission, or in the case of a 501(c)(3), the needs of the parent 501(c)(6).
S: Let’s transition to your diversity work. I haven’t seen that many people like you having a title solely focused on diversity within an association. What are challenges unique to leading diversity within an association versus other kinds of organizations?
M: Well, I do both internal and external diversity. With internal, I work closely with HR on initiatives to ensure that our employees have the opportunity for growth and work in an inclusive and equitable environment. I work with various departments in the organization to provide resources, education, and exposure to thought leaders. The goal is to help them build their own strategies.
S: For those in the association world that want to start or elevate their DEI work, what’s your advice?
M: I'd suggest that they start with reading trade publications to understand what's happening right now in the industry. Use this data to determine if there’s a gap. Then you build knowledge and expertise to help fill that gap.
S: What are some potential gaps that could exist?
M: One is that most industries are struggling with recruitment. Are people aware of how they can get in the industry? Attracting diverse talent can be low hanging fruit.
S: That makes sense. What's something that you feel like leaders of associations, maybe versus leaders of other types of organizations or sectors need to be particularly skilled at or pay attention to?
M: Whatever your career trajectory, you have to hone the skills and fill up your toolbox—lobbying, project management, event planning, finance, etc. Specific to associations, you have to be good at rallying people, inciting collaboration. As an association executive, you have to get internal and external stakeholders on the same page. That could be the most challenging part of it all because everyone has their own interests in mind. That gift of being able to find the common ground and get everyone on the same page is a big deal.
S: Agreed that’s a gift and difficult to do. What are you most proud of in your work in the association world?
M: The people that I've worked with and the type of work that we do. It’s incredibly rewarding. There’s not been a day that I’ve come into the office and been like, “Ugh! I gotta go to work.”
S: I love my job too so I’m fortunate to be with you on that. But I imagine some days involved making mistakes that seemed calamitous. Looking back, are some of those good learning moments?
M: Yes, a ton. I’ve planned poorly attended events. I’ve relied on individuals to get things done that didn’t come through. Thank goodness I’ve had wonderful managers who’ve allowed for mistakes. You have to be able to fail to grow. I’ve also said yes to way too many things. It takes time to learn to slow down and focus on less because you’re so eager and hungry.
S: I can see you wanting to say yes to build those skills but you perform worse if you spread yourself too thin.
S: Last question for you. In a tweet, what’s your best advice to young, aspiring association leaders for becoming an association leader?
M: Master your skills; your skills help the members and the members help you learn the business #skills #memberservices
That’s all for today, folks, thanks for following along! If you have suggestions of interviewees or questions to ask, as well as any feedback on this series, please email Scott at email@example.com.
PS. Are you a fan of interview-style content? We recently launched the Sidecar Sync Podcast where we post weekly episodes discussing all things AI and innovation within the association space. Give it a listen now on your favorite podcast platform!
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