Working it in professional organizations

Mastering this tried-and-true business activity will serve your career well

When Brenda Siler needed to find a specific type of PR agency, she turned to her network of colleagues from the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), a professional organization with nearly 14,000 members in 56 countries, for suggestions. Soon she had a list of recommendations from people who had worked with these agencies.

“Most people would usually turn to consultants for this type of information,” says Siler, director of public relations for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association based in Rockville, Maryland. “I was able to save consulting fees just by tapping into my network.”

Joining a professional organization is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to develop a network and enhance your professional standing, says Caela Farren, author of Who’s Running Your Career?: Creating Stable Work in Unstable Times (Bard Press, $14.95). “Conferences, briefing sessions, problem-solving with colleagues, brainstorming, sharing new procedures, discussing new technologies-this is where learning happens,” she notes.

But to take advantage of the learning and to develop a reliable network, you have to do more than just pay membership fees. Siler, a former chair of IABC-and the first African American to serve in that position-says that you need to be active.

“Paying membership dues for an organization is akin to making a purchase,” says Siler. To really benefit, you have to go to meetings, serve on committees and volunteer. “That’s how you really make the organization work for you. That way you develop your network and allow the learning to continue beyond the meeting setting.”

But attend a few meetings before you fill out the membership application and commit your money to the organization, says Siler. Once you choose a group, you need to make the following commitments to get the most out of your membership:

  • Volunteer, then follow through. If you volunteer to secure a speaker or write the newsletter, it’s important that you do a good job. “You have to do a thorough, timely, effective job, especially as a volunteer,” says Susan RoAne, author of The Secrets of Savvy Networking: How to Make the Best Connections for Business and Personal Success (Warner Books, $13.99).
  • Be well-rounded. Don’t limit yourself to just joining African American professional groups. “I think you need a mix,” says Siler, who also belongs to a local group of African American communicators. To get both the support and the camaraderie that comes from hobnobbing with other African American professionals, as well as to gain access to other decision makers industrywide, Siler believes you need to budget for membership in both types of groups.
  • Develop new skills. Involvement in professional organizations also allows you to develop skills in a safe environment. For instance, if you’re eyeing a promotion to senior manager but lack the necessary budgeting skills, consider serving on your professional organization’s budget committee.
  • View membership as an investment. It’s true that professional memberships can be expensive. If your employer pays for your membership, it’s important that you demonstrate how it benefits the company. For instance, after attending her professional organization’s annual meeting, Siler reports to her
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