by Kevin Helm, CAE, KCSAE Director
I began my career in association management about eighteen years ago. I had a new MBA from a good business school and was ready to use it for my new position as an association marketing manager. Within the first few months, someone asked me to join KCSAE. It sounded like a great networking opportunity so I joined. Soon after, someone asked me if I was going to get my CAE. CAE? I didn’t need no stinkin CAE, I had an MBA. This was my (albeit just a little snobbish) attitude for the next fifteen years.
Then I had my “ah ha” moment. After a 15-year career progressing through various levels in my association, I found myself out of a job and looking for a new position. Uh oh. I loved association management and had my coveted MBA, but it seemed like all the most desirable positions wanted a CAE.
While I was extremely fortunate to get my current job without the CAE, I believe it was the exception, not the rule. As soon as I got the offer, I decided that if I was going to be job hunting in the competitive association arena again in the future, I needed to be as equipped as I could be. In a very short time, I went from not needing a “stinkin CAE” to realizing that a successful future career in association management necessitated a CAE.
I met the basic requirements but I couldn’t find a way to attend enough KCSAE/ ASAE meetings and webinars to earn all the needed continuing education hours. I ended up biting the bullet and enrolled in a human resources class at Longview Community College – this provided me 45 hours of credit which was enough to meet the requirement. Equally important, the experience was extremely helpful in getting me back into student mode after having been out of a classroom for 25 years.
Thankfully, a wise colleague advised me to begin studying in May for the December exam. Yes, May. He shared a few of the recommended books to get me started and I was able to borrow the other books from the KCSAE library, which saved a lot of money. I would certainly recommend this option if available -- the books are expensive.
The first month was daunting. It took me four weeks to make it through the thinnest book, “How to Read Nonprofit Financial Statements.” It was the easiest book. How would I ever get through all the reading, let alone learning, the material from the giant books with intimidating titles such as, “The Association Law Handbook” and “The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management?” FYI – these are far from “handbooks”, they are two-inch thick textbooks!
Compounding the stress of studying was the financial investment. In addition to the cost of the HR class, there was the cost of applying and sitting for the exam and also participating in the KCSAE study group (which I recommend). I also purchased a set of flashcards for only $150! Thankfully, my association covered the cost of the exam and study group.
I hadn’t studied like this for over 25 years, so I had many rusty habits I relearned how to take notes, to memorize, and to apply that knowledge. It was a grinding process -- I committed to study almost every day for an hour or two, sometimes more. Even on business trips. It required significant sacrifice and a lot of family support.
Finally, test day came. Echoing the sentiments of study partner – this was the most grueling test I’ve ever taken. What made it hard for me was the number and complexity of questions (200) in four hours across nine domains with the questions setup having multiple correct answers but only one best answer. I took the full four hours for the exam and would have taken another if allowed. My brain and body were completely exhausted.
Everyone I talked to who has taken the exam says waiting for the results is the hardest part. And they are right. The first few weeks aren’t too bad, but the last three were miserable. Finally, one day I received an email from a study partner and she had her results. Time to get mine. I remember the next moments very vividly – walking nervously, almost shaking, to the mailbox with my dog, having the wrong mailbox key, walking back to get the right key, tense as I was opening the mailbox and hurrying back inside to open the letter. I was alone at the time. I told myself once again that I had a plan in case I didn’t pass and that the likelihood was high that I had not. That had to have been the strongest glued envelope I’ve ever opened.
As soon as I saw the word “Congratulations” I was unexpectedly hit by an outpouring of emotion. I had no idea I would’ve had such an overwhelming moment of relief, exhaustion, thankfulness and what felt like a hundred other emotions. This meant more to me than I realized.
While I regret waiting so long to sit for the exam, I believe everything happens in the right season. It feels great to have passed and in hindsight, it was one of the greatest educational endeavors I’ve gone through as an adult. While I am relieved to now have the coveted CAE designation, the most significant impact came from the process of learning, the rigor, and the time getting to know some extremely talented and smart people. When I reflect on that long journey, I’m very, very glad I now have my stinkin CAE!