Associations can get you ahead

Nov. 11, 2008
One award-winning executive says belonging to an association can help you get ahead.

Should you belong to an association? If you want to get ahead in your career, the answer is “Yes,” says Stephen L. Lamb, executive vice president of the Mechanical Contractors Association (MCA) of Chicago. “Association membership has incredible benefits for ambitious, career-oriented businesspeople,” Lamb says.

As a tireless advocate of associations, Lamb is well-versed in the advantages of membership. This year, he was recognized for his efforts in association work by the Association Forum of Chicagoland. The Forum selected him as the recipient of the 2008 John C. Thiel Distinguished Service Award, which is given to Forum volunteers who have demonstrated long-term, multi-faceted leadership. The award is named in memory of the late John C. Thiel, the Forum’s chairman-elect in 1990-91.

A Certified Association Executive (CAE), Lamb has mentored many association members working to earn their CAE designation. He has served on numerous Association Forum committees and has made a difference in the lives of many Forum members. “It’s always an honor to be recognized by people in one’s own profession,” Lamb says.

Solving career concerns

Lamb believes that belonging to an association can help members in a variety of ways. “As the saying goes, ‘No man is an island.’” he says. “Businesspeople do not thrive when they are isolated from colleagues. Regular interaction leads to learning, personal growth and career progression.” Prior to joining MCA Chicago, Lamb worked for the Illinois Education Association, the National Electrical Contractors Association and was executive director of the Illinois Optometric Association.

Lamb noted that the following career concerns can often be resolved through association membership:

Stuck in limbo: Is your career making little or no progress? Interacting with others in your profession could be the answer. “An association might offer workshops on how to advance in your career,” Lamb says. “Or, it may be time to seek a new employer. You can make connections through association functions that could lead to a better position with a different company.”

No one to ask: If you are self-employed, or a part of a small department at your workplace, there may be times when you would like to know the opinion of others in your position. “Your employer or clients look to you as an expert in your field,” Lamb said, “but there are times when even an expert can use some good advice. Many associations have online message boards where members can ask each other questions or discuss various important topics.”

Reinventing the wheel: Are you ever frustrated with ineffective or convoluted processes in your workplace? With time and patience, you might come up with an easier way – but why reinvent the wheel? By talking with peers in an association, you can learn about solutions that others in your industry have already discovered. “An association can provide educational opportunities to help you with difficulties in your workplace. You can also find answers simply by talking with other members at association functions,” Lamb noted.

Is anybody out there? Are there aspects of your field or industry that you wish you could change? If so, joining an association would give you a forum for changing those unfavorable aspects. “You may find that many others feel the same way as you,” Lamb said, “and when you unite and collaborate with them, your combined voices can make a difference.”

Providing members with value

Lamb also has advice for association organizers who wish to see an increase in membership numbers. “An association needs to be more than just a social club,” he said. “Associations have a responsibility to deliver value to their members, who see every dollar they pay in dues as an investment in their future.”

With that principle in mind, Lamb worked to restructure MCA Chicago when he became executive vice president in 1993. “The association had a good reputation, but functioned more as a social club than a business at that time,” he said. “Attendance was falling off at meetings, and it was clear that the next generation of member corporations was not satisfied.”

Strategic planning sessions revealed that the association could best serve its members by providing them with continuing education opportunities. “Ongoing education is imperative in today’s construction marketplace — and truly, in any marketplace,” Lamb says.

Working with the association’s workforce, Pipe Fitters Local Union 597, Lamb and his MCA Chicago team developed an education plan to help members and their workers to improve their trade. “Working closely with the union was essential,” Lamb says. “Our common goal, to educate our workers and our contractors, has formed a bond between labor and management that has paid off in many ways.” Thanks to this shared spirit of progress and camaraderie, these two construction industry giants have not had a strike in more than 90 years.

“Education provides value for our contractors, as well as their workforce,” Lamb said. “Having seen firsthand the benefits that membership can bring, I encourage all forward-thinking businesspeople to consider joining an association. It can provide the impetus needed to take you to the next step in your career.”

To find out more about MCA Chicago, visit

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