Interview with Michael S. Olson, President and CEO of the American Society of Association Executives

Interview with Michael S. Olson, President and CEO of the American Society of Association Executives

Michael S. Olson is president and chief executive officer of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), a nonprofit professional society of more than 25,000 executives who manage trade, professional, and philanthropic associations worldwide. A career professional in association management and a Certified Association Executive (CAE), Mr. Olson is the former president and chief executive officer of Olson Management Group, Inc., and executive vice president of the Carolinas Association of Professional Insurance Agents, Inc., in Raleigh, NC, where he was named chief executive officer at age 23.

Mr. Olson has served as a member of the adjunct faculty at North Carolina State University in Raleigh in its public affairs graduate program in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. He serves on the Policy Committee of the Travel Business Roundtable and on the boards of directors of the Arthritis Foundation, DC Chapter, the Washington, DC-based Points of Light Foundation, and the Convention Industry Council (CIC). In 1998, Olson was elected an honorary member of the North Carolina Press Association, Raleigh and has most recently been named as a member of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States' Association Committee of 100.

Mr. Olson and his wife, Marilynn reside in Washington, DC and have two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, both pursuing graduate degrees fulltime.

Mr. Olson & His Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Job Information & Advice   |   Education Information & Advice   |   Industry Trends


Mr. Olson & His Career

How did you discover you had a talent for management?

When I began to understand what creates organizational success - financial, staffing, strategies and creativity.

How did your career unfold? How and why did you become involved in association management?

I was recruited into a public relations/government relations position at an association following graduation. In 1974, I formed my own association management company. I think what I found so appealing about the industry were the multitude of disciplines it required and the ever-evolving landscape that characterizes association management.

What has been your key to success?

Staying interactive and partnering with competent and motivated staff teams, and seeking information and advice on future trends on a constant basis.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

My greatest success has been building an association management company from ground zero. In terms of a setback, I would say seeing individuals underestimate their value and potential.


The Actual Work

Tell us what you do. What are your responsibilities? How much of your time is spent in the office, compared to meetings, travel, etc.?

As president and CEO, I am the direct conduit between our board of directors and the roughly 150 employees of ASAE. With the board, I help determine a strategic direction and business plan for the society and organize our staff to most effectively meet those goals.

I also serve as the chief spokesman for ASAE, and our industry to a large degree, and frequently am called away to testify on Capitol Hill, speak to members or outside interests and generally reinforce the society's primary goals and objectives. I would estimate that I spend at least a few months a year travelling to speaking engagements and meetings in the U.S. and internationally.

With the advent of new technologies, cultivating relationships with our counterparts in other parts of the world has become a high priority for the business community in general.

Describe a typical day of work for you.

Assuming I'm in Washington, I usually arrive at ASAE's offices by 6:30 or 7 a.m. I find the early morning hours a productive time, when there are fewer distractions and I can devote my full attention to the particular task at hand. Today's business executives have to be forward-thinking, and association managers are no different.

Like many organizations, ASAE has developed a strategic plan that is constantly evolving to meet tomorrow's challenges. Much of my time is spent keeping our programs and services in line with that strategic direction. With numerous divisions and hundreds of employees, staying on top of everything we are doing can be challenging. ASAE and its members, however, are beginning to see some fruit of their labor. This is an organization that must and absolutely will be responsive, open to change and accountable to its members and elected leadership.

As President and CEO of a professional organization with 25,000 executives as members, "collaboration" among management professionals is your business. Why is it so important for management executives to collaborate?

I suppose the old adage "two heads are better than one" may seem tired, but it remains quite true in the business world. Collaboration is both healthy and essential to our survival. ASAE has a network of 68 regional, allied societies of association executives across the country that it relies on a great deal to relay member needs and concerns, share ideas and trumpet the benefits of association membership. Promoting this industry is a tremendously collaborative effort. Strategic alliances are certainly practical, in that you are pooling resources such as time, money and manpower, but also a great way to learn how other organizations operate and how well your own group works with others. Organizations had better understand that the days of the monolithic corporation are over.

How have your professional collaborations benefited your own career?

At 23 years of age, I was named chief executive officer of the Carolinas Association of Professional Insurance Agents Inc. in Raleigh, NC, and quickly learned to count on organizations like ASAE for my continued professional development and opportunities to network with other folks experiencing some of the same challenges. I don't think I've stopped learning from my colleagues in this industry to this day.

What are some of the other professional organizations for management?

There are 68 Allied Societies of ASAE across the country. They are similar to ASAE in terms of being member-oriented and dedicated to ensuring the continued development of the association management profession -- only on a regional level. Through the development of new technologies, ASAE is improving its ability to communicate with members across the country and give them greater access to the wealth of information that is available here, but membership in one of the allied societies of association executives also gives one a great opportunity to interact and share ideas with their colleagues from the same region of the country.

What are some common myths about management executives?

I don't know if they qualify as myths, but there are some definite misconceptions about this industry as a whole that we are very much intent on correcting. In Washington, associations are sometimes stereotyped as high-powered lobbyists using their nonprofit status to some advantage over corporate interests. Nothing could be further from the truth, in fact. The simple fact is that associations spend fully three times more on professional development and public information than on direct lobbying.

Other contributions associations make to society include setting and enforcing product standards; setting professional codes of ethics; serving as a clearinghouse of information about the industries or professions we represent; and promoting and encouraging civic activism and volunteerism.


Job Information & Advice

What is the average salary for graduating students in the US who are starting out in association management? What are people at the top of this profession paid?

A college graduate will typically enter an association career with a salary of between $22-25K, depending on location and job description. At the top of the profession, we've identified at least 100 CEOs earning in excess of $350K, and several are making more than $1 million annually.

What are the hottest management specialties for the new decade?

Association executives today are asked to wear many different hats during the course of a typical day on the job. The number of actual jobs an executive might perform depends on the staff size of the organization, but typically, a CEO can expect to be part accountant, part lobbyist, part company strategist and part cheerleader at any given time. In terms of a hot specialty, I would have to say someone who is technologically savvy and up on the latest online business tools might enjoy an edge over their competition.

What are the best ways to find a job in management? How can graduating students gain an advantage?

Like many other professions, association management is a competitive marketplace right now. Membership in an organization like ASAE increases an executive's chances to make contact and network with a tremendous range of professionals in this business. Many professions are occasionally referred to as a 'community,' but the term especially applies to association management, I believe. The more interaction one has with people in this industry, the better his or her chances are to make a connection that might translate into a job offer. Students who intern in this field obviously are going to be making more contacts and much earlier than those who do not, so I would encourage that as well. Job-seekers should also check out ASAE's Career Headquarters online at:

How available are internships in this field?

Because many associations are run by a small staff, internships are readily available in this marketplace. Students are also much more likely to be getting actual on-the-job experience in these internships, instead of being relegated to strictly mundane tasks. There are hundreds of different jobs going on everyday in the association industry, and student interns can expect to get an up-close and personal look at many of them.

How is the job market now for the management industry? What do you think the job market will be in 5 years?

Estimates indicate that as many as 1,000 new associations are being formed every year. As more and more associations are created to accommodate emerging professions, hobbies and interests, there are obviously more opportunities for employment in this profession. Many existing professional and trade associations are also expanding their staff size to meet the needs of whatever growing industry or field they represent. I don't forecast any drop-off in this trend in the foreseeable future. Associations are greeting the new millennium with tremendous human and financial resources. They have become leading economic forces, contributing nearly $50 billion per year to our economy, and they fill a role that is desperately important to America's communities. As our society transitions into a more global marketplace, associations are positioning themselves as part of a collective that will lead the way in meeting future challenges.


Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your education.

I grew up in a military family and we moved around a lot, so I ended up attending eight different schools before high school. I spent my high school years in Oslo, Norway. I did my undergraduate studies at Lenoir Rhyne College, and received an MBA from Florida Atlantic University.

What did you like and dislike about your management-related education? Was your management-related education worth it for you? Why?

I can't say there was anything I disliked about training on-the-job for a career in association management. Once I had committed to this field of interest, it was essential that I continue to learn best practices and I was extremely grateful for any and all educational opportunities, be it a seminar on effective board management or simply a conversation with some of my more experienced peers. I know of very few professionals in any line of work who would say their education ended upon their graduation from college, and I don't care how many degrees they have received.

Are there any business schools with specific education for Association Management?

Yes. ASAE is currently working with the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Virginia Tech to create a new M.S. degree track in Association Management, and is exploring MBA programs with Association Management concentrations at three or four other major institutions.

How can students best prepare to get into the best graduate schools for a management program?

Demonstrate your creative abilities; see the value of collaboration; articulate a desired outcome for yourself.

What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in association management?

I would advise students interested in association or nonprofit management to take advantage of every opportunity to learn about this field before you get on the job, be that through a graduate program or internship or online research. There was only one graduate program tailored to this profession when I was in college, and I can tell you, those of us from my generation could have used more. There are just some aspects to association management - tax issues, board relations, etc. - that are very unique to the profession. The more prepared and understanding you are of the nuances specific to this field, the faster you will hit the ground running.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the five most respected and prestigious business schools/departments that specialize in management and really make a difference for graduating students?

UNC-Chapel Hill; the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University; the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania; Stanford; and Harvard.

What should management students try to get out of their education?

As I stated earlier, I think it's important to get the most out of every learning opportunity you have before you enter the working world, regardless of your chosen profession. My advice would be the same for students of any curriculum.

What factors should prospective management students consider when choosing their school?

Association or nonprofit management is still a relatively new curriculum in many colleges and universities in the U.S., so one really can't judge a program based on how long it has been around. I would recommend students look at the credentials of the faculty, and possibly meet with a student advisor prior to enrollment to determine a program's course offerings, graduation rate and job placement services, and try to make an informed decision based on comparisons with other schools.

You're a Certified Association Executive (CAE). How important are certifications like this in the industry. Where can one get these certifications?

Certifications are very important in that they help enhance on-the-job performance and serve to designate those individuals who have demonstrated knowledge that is essential to the business practice. The CAE program is a voluntary certification effort started by ASAE in 1960 to elevate our professional standards and enhance the stature of association executives. Today, more than 2,800 association executives, or roughly 21.5 percent of our eligible members, hold the CAE designation. More than half of all CAEs are chief executive officers of their organizations. For more information about the CAE eligibility requirements, exam content and recommended preparation, visit:


Industry Trends

How has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

The popularity of the Internet presents more opportunities than obstacles for the association community. Associations spend $2.2 billion collectively on technology every year, and through the Internet, can provide industry knowledge to a broader audience than ever before at limited cost. Just as an example, members of ASAE who are unable to attend one of our educational seminars in person can now access some of the same programming through either our online School of Association Management (SAM) or one of our new virtual seminars. These kinds of distance learning opportunities are proving extremely popular with our members. The most recent virtual seminar we conducted had 106 sites (registration is by location, not per person), and an estimated 500 listeners. That's not bad for a program we just started in September.

What are some of the trends that you see in the world of management which could help students plan for the future?

As I've stated earlier, technology is playing a big role in the strategic direction of associations today. Students today, however, are accustomed to the fast pace of change that has permeated American society in recent years, and I see tomorrow's association executives as being very well-suited and prepared for the challenges they will face.

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