Get Connected: Making a Professional Association Work for You

Whether your career is just starting out or well on its way, the need for professional development persists. Eventually, you'll need someone's help to keep advancing -- and a proven way to find that help is to network with colleagues, opinion leaders and decision makers in your field by joining a professional association.

But there are lots of them out there; often, many for a single field. As a result, determine your goals and make a plan before joining up. Association professionals suggest you determine four things before making a choice: your interests, how a group will help you achieve your career goals, what you want to get out of an organization and what you plan to contribute to one.

Once you've worked all that out, choosing the right group should be relatively simple. For even more help, we've asked the leaders of some local industry organizations for advice on how to prepare for -- and get the most out of -- association membership. Here's what they had to say.

Lee Ivory

Expand Your Horizons

Once you've joined a professional organization, insists Lee Ivory, president of the Washington Association of Black Journalists, spreading the word about your interests, skills and background is essential. "In an industry like media, for example, and a town like D.C., it's not what you know, but who you know. Joining a vast network that connects you to people and opens lines of communications is crucial."

Once you become a member, recommends Ivory, make every effort to introduce yourself to everyone -- from fellow members to officers "It's easy to stick with a core group of individuals and not venture outside of that, which defeats the whole purpose."

Adrienne Spahr

Speak Up

As a member of a professional organization, you've got to be comfortable discussing yourself with complete strangers; it’s a necessity. Many of the events these organizations host, meanwhile, cater to large groups -- and for people who are shy in group settings, these gatherings can be intimidating.

Adrienne Spahr, co-chair of the Washington-based networking group Young Government Leaders, says that by becoming a member, it can help improve your communication and leadership skills. To further enhance these skills and get to know others, she suggests volunteering for a committee. "It's a great way to build relationships."

Chris Willey

Take Full Advantage

There is more to being an active member of a professional organization than simply paying dues and attending an occasional meeting. "Push yourself forward," suggests Chris Willey, president of the D.C. chapter of the Association of Information Technology Professionals.

Many organizations hold annual conventions, bringing together members to meet, train, and get the latest on what’s next in their industries. "Bring a stack of business cards with you," Willey recommends. In addition to training and networking sessions, many conventions include career fairs, which provide the ability to establish professional contacts that could lead to future job opportunities.

-- Compiled by Andrea N. Browne

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