Association Forum’s 2021 Emerging Leaders

The Emerging Leaders Program provides a six-month course that’s full of tips and techniques to help grow careers.

By the FORUM Magazine editors


For association professionals under 35, the Emerging Leaders Program provides a six-month course that’s full of tips and techniques to help grow their careers. The program helps strengthen communication and leadership skills, provides learning from industry executives, offers one-on-one mentoring, develops professional relationships with peer leaders and gives the chance to attend two Association Forum virtual events: Forum Forward and Holiday Showcase.

We asked this year’s Emerging Leaders the following questions:

  1. What influenced your decision to become an Emerging Leader?
  2. How do you plan to apply what you learn in this program to your career?
  3. Who has inspired you in your career?
  4. What drew you to the association industry?
  5. Any advice for other young professionals?
  6. How have your goals evolved this year due to the pandemic? What new skills have you learned in response to the pandemic?

Alicia Belcaster, Marketing Program Manager, Emergency Nurses Association

Influence? This sounded like the perfect fit for professional development that I was looking for as I look to grow my career in associations. A couple of friends and colleagues of mine also highly recommended this program.

Industry draw? In all honesty, I really hadn’t planned on working in an association. An opportunity presented itself to me at just the right time, so I took a leap of faith. It was the best decision I’ve ever made in my career. Not only do I love what I do, but I love the association atmosphere and the “do-good, feel-good” work that comes with it.

Advice? Never stop growing! Career paths are a constant journey, and my best advice for young professionals is to keep learning and driving in the right direction to where you want to be. Your journey begins as soon as you get your first job and never stops until you want it to. There will be bumps along the way, but never give up because the harder you work, the bigger the rewards.

Evolution of goals? New skills? The word of the year for me is one from [Friends] I’m sure most people know: “Pivot!” And while it makes me laugh to think of this scene from the show, it really could not be more accurate for how I’ve managed the pandemic this year. I’ve had to embrace change more than I ever have and pivot what I had previously planned for the year as fast as possible to get new resources to our members in need on the front lines. It really proved to me that teamwork makes the dream work and together, we can make a big difference.

Brie Bingham, Membership & Marketing Manager, Cremation Association of North America

Influence? I was encouraged to explore the program by my boss, and it appealed to my love of learning.

Industry draw? A job offer! It was a learning curve from 501(c)(3)s, but the people make it great.

McAllister Cox, Manager of Professional Standards, Chicago Association of REALTORS

Influence? I wanted to explore opportunities and hear from successful third parties on how I can advance my career.

Apply learnings? I have realized that building relationships with others outside of your association is critical to career advancement.

Inspiration? I have been inspired the most by our volunteer members. They provide me with the feedback and motivation to want to be the best at my job every day.

Advice? The association world is very big, so find others who you can collaborate with and learn from outside of your association.

Evolution of goals? New skills? I have become very self-sufficient during the pandemic and developed greater confidence in myself to get the job done.

Nancy Elizondo, Accounting Analyst, Chicago Association of REALTORS (CAR)

Influence? CAR’s CEO Michelle Mills Clement encouraged me to be part of the program.

Apply learnings? I want to continue to grow professionally, so I will look into more programs similar to the Emerging Leaders Program. I will continue to work on networking and coming out of my shell more.

Inspiration? My cousin Ale — she’s had her share of struggles, but her struggles have never gotten the best of her. She continues to grow professionally and is still working toward her goal of obtaining her own business. Through her ups and downs, she never seems to lose vision of her goals.

Industry draw? It just happened. I was working for a small board that merged with a larger association. I was supposed to stay for only one year. But after the year, I was offered a full-time position.

Advice? Advance in your career by investing time on your professional development. Expand your network in every and any career opportunity you get.

Evolution of goals? New skills? My organizational skills — the ability to continue to meet my professional deadlines even though I am now dealing with personal/home tasks all at the same time while working from home.

Kara Ferguson, MSHTM, CMP, Meeting Planner, American Society of Anesthesiologists

Influence? As I continue to focus on developing individually and collectively to enhance my skills personally and professionally, I wanted to participate in a program that was tailored to professionals within the association industry, which is a unique environment.

Apply learnings? I plan to apply what I learned in this program to my career by tracking my progress and taking every opportunity to put what I have learned into practice. My hope is the ideas, thoughts and concepts that I learn from the program will help my team and me to solve specific challenges we may face and add even more value to our association.

Industry draw? Professors at my alma mater, Roosevelt University, drew me to the association industry. During my time in graduate school, many faculty members provided students with information about the meetings industry specifically as it relates to the association world. As I read more about it, I learned that associations are the backbone of many professions. Most importantly, they have a huge impact on working toward a greater good.

Advice? There are a variety of career paths to take, and it may not be easy to reach. However, being your authentic self, taking risks and holding yourself accountable can open doors to many opportunities. Remember to consistently educate yourself, constantly network with others and continuously embrace change.

Evolution of goals? New skills? Due to the pandemic, I have become immersed in everything digital, particularly the logistics of planning virtual conferences and meetings. It has been a challenge but rewarding at the same time. The pandemic has expanded my knowledge of technology and understanding of what is required for organizers in the virtual world. These times have changed our business operations forever.

Ginny Graves, Senior Product Owner, Association Analytics

Influence? I learned about the program at the Women’s Executive Forum and thought it would be a good opportunity to connect with other association leaders in Chicago.

Inspiration? I’ve had the opportunity to work with and for leaders who have thought of success through the lens of not just personal success, but team and societal success. Working with individuals who are constantly asking, “How can I use my skills and voice to make the world a better place?” has been a large source of my inspiration.

Advice? You are in control of your career. Having a network that includes mentors and advocates is important, but you can’t depend solely on others to help you advance your career. Speak up about the way you want your career to progress and ask for the development opportunities to help you get there.

Evolution of goals? New skills? Going into 2020, I was planning to focus on growing my network. With the shift to everything virtual, this has proved rather difficult. Instead, I have turned my goals inward and have been reflecting on the type of leader I want to be and what skills and tools I need to invest in to get there.

Cory Hall, Senior Market Specialist, Chicago Association of REALTORS

Influence? It was highly recommended by colleagues who completed the program the year prior.

Apply learnings? I plan on making what I’m learning about with relationship-building a more integral part of my professional journey.

Inspiration? My CEO! She embodies everything I aspire to become as a leader.

Advice? Whatever you do, do it excellently.

Evolution of goals? New skills? My goals have become more interpersonal rather than technical-skills based. My “new” skill in response to the pandemic is the art of excellent communication.

Emily Harris, MBA, CAE, Marketing Manager, Association of Nutrition & Foodservice Professionals

Influence? Becoming a valued leader in my organization, in addition to other areas of my life, is very important to me. I saw this program as a unique chance to learn from other leaders and emerging leaders in the association industry and to push myself outside of my comfort zone.

Apply learnings? I hope to bring what I’ve learned to my organization by representing myself as a leader within my department and as I work with other departments. I also plan to continue seeking opportunities of growth within Association Forum and elsewhere in the industry.

Industry draw? Similar to what I have heard from colleagues, I did not plan to work for an association. However, as I came to understand the industry and the impact that these organizations have, I found it encouraging and exciting to work for one.

Inspiration? There are a few colleagues I worked with over the years who come to mind. They stand out to me because they consistently improve themselves through professional development. Their dedication to their careers has helped me realize how important it is to set goals for myself and to continue learning and pushing myself.

Advice? Say yes and be open to opportunities that come to you! Learning from others will help you learn more about yourself, your career goals and the path you want to take. Also, network with others in your industry; putting effort into these connections will be worthwhile.

Evolution of goals? New skills? I have expanded my goals to learn more about all areas related to virtual events. Changes from the pandemic have helped me improve my skills related to video production, virtual event organization, digital advertising and more.

Dana Karstensen, Data Governance Product Manager, American Society of Anesthesiologists

Apply learnings? As we’ve talked about different topics, I make intentional plans to incorporate what we’ve learned so far. Also, as I read our book for the book report, I’m noting ideas that I’d like to bring to my team.

Industry draw? The culture — everyone wants to see team success, and that is the type of environment I really enjoy working in.

Advice? Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and don’t be afraid to ask all the questions.

Evolution of goals? New skills? Our organization has relied a lot more on data this year, so my team has played a much bigger role in helping our organization through the uncertain times.

Andy Krakos, Project & QA Manager, American Planning Association (APA)

Influence? APA’s Leadership nominating me to sign up was a boost of confidence in my abilities that was timed perfectly to my own growing ambitions.

Apply learnings? I am soaking up everything I can that touches upon leadership! Beyond adding courses through LinkedIn Learning to my curriculum, reading books focused on leadership and embarking on an Impact Leaders Series from Loyola, I am intent on building a network that will help me grow.

Industry draw? Every association has a mission that is tied strongly to the people they support. This way of thinking about the individuals first really appeals to me.

Advice? Don’t get stuck on a path you don’t love just because you were led there and “it’s fine.” You know what you are good at. You know what you like. So, find a position and a career path you enjoy! It sounds hokey, but it’s true!

Evolution of goals? New skills? This has been an opportunity to rethink the ways we go about doing our business. I’ve learned the importance of leading myself first and leading others with grace.

Jakeeva J. Lee, External Affairs Manager, Chicago Association of REALTORS

Influence? I’m fortunate that my CEO, Michelle Mills Clement, and association believe strongly in professional development. I’ve had a couple of colleagues join this program in the past, and they raved about the value it added to their personal and professional growth. I also wanted to expand my professional network and learn directly from a variety of experienced association executives and instructors, as well as gain further insight for the CAE exam.

Apply learnings? As I look to grow my career, obtaining the strategic tools and tactics to reach another level is necessary ­— especially as I continue to manage down, manage up and manage myself. I also obtained deeper understanding of effective communication, conflict resolution, presentation skills and the importance of being a credible/trustworthy decision maker across all organizational levels.

Inspiration? Hands down, my CEO, Michelle Mills Clement. She is the standout example of power, influence, intelligence, boldness and empathy — while remaining humble. She has been the rocket fuel to what I have achieved in my career thus far. Furthermore, I tell her often that she has pulled me out of the “sunken place” to unlock my potential. It’s been a nonstop journey for me ever since — of which I will forever be grateful.

Advice? Start somewhere! One of my favorite words has been “try.” Push yourself out of your comfort zone. You won’t know how good you are or how to improve if you don’t at least try it. Also, grow your professional network and connect with/learn from other association peers. It’s key to your growth.

Evolution of goals? New skills? Besides traveling, life hasn’t slowed down too much for me, very fortunately. The unpredictability of the pandemic forced me not to waste time to begin (and complete) many professional goals.

Kerry Ann Lennon, Sr., Business Solutions Engineer, Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, Inc.

Influence? I’m at the stage in my career where I am really looking to be able to take that next step, where my next position will be a leadership/management one. Given my desire to stay within the association industry, this program seemed like a perfect fit to help me achieve that.

Apply learnings? I hope to be able to apply a variety of aspects from the program to my career, from tips and tricks from my colleagues in the program to conflict resolution or how to network effectively. Each session of the program offers something new to learn and something that will undoubtedly be useful in my future career.

Industry draw? The idea of working and having what you do contribute to an organization that is doing good and giving back really drew me to the association world. Additionally, I’ve always admired that associations were some of the first organizations to put women and BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] in leadership positions.

Inspiration? My best friend, Richard, has inspired me not only in my career but also in my personal life. He is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, a beautiful writer and the epitome of inspiring. He maintains a full-time job, consistently works as an actor (in non-COVID times, of course!), and is able to do both of these effortlessly whilst being deaf. He is someone who has never let anything hold him back, and knowing him puts a lot of things into perspective for me on a daily basis.

Advice? Be sure to take advantage of all the professional development opportunities that your company offers — be it LinkedIn Learning, paying for you to attend a conference, certification/tuition reimbursement, etc. These opportunities will prove to be invaluable as you progress in your career.

Oh, and please don’t be afraid to use your PTO!

Abby MacCormack, Human Resources Manager, CCIM Institute

Influence? I was very excited to connect with and learn from other professionals in the association industry and expand my leadership skills while doing it.

Inspiration? My supervisor, Alex Hanba (VP of Operations at CCIM Institute). I have learned so much from her in my two years at CCIM — she has been an invaluable mentor!

Advice? Focus on developing your soft skills as much as you do your technical skills. Being able to problem-solve, communicate and work with others at all levels of an organization is so important.

Sarah McNulty, Governance Coordinator, Emergency Nurses Association

Influence? I was at a point in my career where I was ready to take ownership of my responsibilities.

Apply learnings? I plan on using the skills and knowledge I learn from this program to take on leadership opportunities in my association.

Inspiration? A close family friend introduced me to associations, which has set me on my career path today.

Industry draw? I always had a passion for the healthcare industry, and I wanted to do my part to support healthcare workers.

Advice? My advice for young professionals would be to take advantage of any learning opportunities and never stop learning.

Evolution of goals? New skills? Throughout the pandemic, I would say I have learned to have more of a work-life balance. I have learned to make sure to give myself a break and that it is OK to walk away from the computer.

Mike Thill, Business Development Specialist, American Society of Anesthesiologists

Influence? I know others who have been part of this program. They talked about how valuable the program was and that they learned so much from being a part of it.

Industry draw? I didn’t really have any direction in my career. I have a sibling in the association industry who thought it would be a good fit for me. I am so glad I listened because I could not imagine working anywhere else again.

Inspiration? I would have to say my parents. Without them, I would not be where I am today.

Evolution of goals? New skills? My goals changed drastically. Instead of creating and developing new offerings, we focused on how to best assist our members and groups during this difficult time. I definitely learned to adapt quickly to a tumultuous environment.

Alyson Whittlesey, CFRE, Assistant Executive Director, Foundation for Endodontics

Influence? Following encouragement from my supervisor and learning more about the program, I was influenced to participate to enhance leadership capabilities and learn from the experiences of others.

Apply learnings? Lessons learned came in a variety of formats, including resources, career guidance and shared personal experiences, so I hope to find ways to implement each of these varieties across my daily work and throughout my career. Additionally, I hope to stay in touch with other members of the Emerging Leaders cohort. The shared experiences were some of the most powerful lessons of the program.

Inspiration? My father, who continues his commitment to the furniture industry (third generation) after nearly 50 years of service.

Industry draw? Like so many of my colleagues, I happened upon the association industry in a roundabout way in 2008. More important is what has kept me in the association industry, which is mission-driven work, passionate volunteers and the ability to work in an environment where I can regularly make an impact.

Advice? Seek guidance and mentorship, ask lots of questions and volunteer for projects that stretch your abilities.

Evolution of goals? New skills? My individual career goals remain important and center stage, but my goals for leading a strong and effective team have become more important than ever. While adapting to new work settings and circumstances, ensuring the team is efficient, working together for the collective benefit of the foundation and remaining cohesive have become top priority. I am grateful to work with a fantastic team who has made the challenges of navigating a pandemic in the workplace a positive experience.

Other 2021 Emerging Leaders

Claire Brown

Joseph DeAngelis

Eric Fall

Virgina Graves

Kyle Kane

Krzysztof Litewka

Samantha Luebbering

Jordan McGahan

Lindsey Powell

Alexis Smith

Evan Summers

Drew Whalen

Written by FORUM Magazine editors.

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