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Lessons Learned in the Association World

IT’S BEEN SEVEN YEARS NOW that I have been with the National Systems Contracting Association (NSCA). I have learned that running a trade association and running a for-profit business, albeit in the same industry, are two completely different things. The first lesson I learned was the meaning of not-for-profit, a difficult concept to comprehend for someone focused on the bottom line for 20 years. I now know what is important is the trust our members have placed in the staff at NSCA to manage their organization and be stewards of their resources. We still keep score, only on a different type of scorecard.

I also had to learn how to travel well. I used to have just one set of clothes and toiletries. Today I keep my bags packed with separate items for travel, ready to go at a moment’s notice. I even have clothes assigned to Las Vegas, New York, and Washington, D.C. As it turned out, most of my Iowa clothes make me too visible in the larger cities, and my travel clothes do the same around here. I learned that two wardrobes were necessary.

I have learned how to make traveling easy and interesting. For example, in 2002 alone, I visited Las Vegas nine times. The secret is developing a routine and not just meeting but really getting to know the people who live in these places. By spending some extra time socializing with my business contacts, I have gained a more global perspective of the industry and have met some great people along the way.

I was taught to be cautious of people outside the Midwest. I have since learned that everywhere I go — even to New York, which has always been given a bad rap by Midwesterners — I meet terrific people. Travel may not always be fun these days, but it’s still worth the effort.

Whether a company is large or has only a few employees, it is important to provide your staff with continual and frequent opportunities to exchange ideas with industry peers and learn from leading professionals. Training, conferences, and seminars (such as the Systems Integration Expo or the NSCA’s Project Management course) are key to keeping your business in tune with new technologies, industry trends, and the best practices in the industry.

As an association, NSCA strives to provide businesses with tools to heighten their success. The challenge is to understand the needs of the industry and provide resources in a cost-effective and convenient manner. There is a great disparity in how some members of associations engage themselves in the organization. However, just as in any business, the better job NSCA does in communicating to our members, the more involvement it produces. In turn, that returns a better value for the members.

It is difficult to get the word out on any new product, program, or service these days. There just seems to be too much of every form of communication. Phone calls seem bothersome, regular mail can be overwhelming, and e-mail has become cluttered with unwanted spam, which makes you wonder how to get the attention of the market you serve. In light of that, we must do a better job getting the right information to those who need it — not just to anyone. The promise of a paperless and more productive office by the use of e-mail has been a broken one.

In my travels, I am constantly reminded of how proud our members are of this association and the industry they work in. When I was in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, recently, the first service vehicle I saw in the cab ride from the airport was a member company, Sound Advise, which had the new NSCA logos all over its shiny new trucks. Others have the membership plaques lining the office hallways, some place the NSCA name on their business cards, and another firm I visited copied our new ethics policy for its proposals. Most of all, I have learned how proud I am of what this organization has become by the way our members show pride in us.

Chuck Wilson is executive director of NSCA.

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