SIGN OFF: My Association Leadership Journey

Leadership is more than a title. George Miller reflects on his career and leadership journey in this guest column.

By George Miller, M.S., CAE

Abstract arrow direction. Technology background. High speed. Hi-tech

NOTE: This article appeared as the final column in the spring 2023 issue of FORUM Magazine. We asked George Miller, MS, CAE, practice director at McKinley Advisors and 2022-23 chair of Association Forum’s Content Working Group, to reflect on the issue topic of “Leading at Every Level.” Read on for George’s inspiring journey!

When Kim (FORUM editor-in-chief) asked me to contribute to the topic of Leadership at Every Level, it got me thinking about my own professional journey and some pivotal moments along the way. Plus, reflecting on the past and planning for the future are timely themes for someone who is (gasp!) approaching half a century.

George and his husband Jerry on a recent trip to San Diego.

I spent a good chunk of my twenties working for a small association, Delta Sigma Phi, which was a fantastic opportunity to try on a lot of hats. Some, like the opportunity to build, facilitate and grow educational programs fit great! And some, like the opportunity to supervise eight direct reports, were a Stetson–that’s more hat than I could pull off. During this period, I also built a solid relationship working hand-in-hand with a first-time CEO. Watching him lead the staff and board got my wheels spinning about whether a CEO job could or should be part of my journey.

Most of my thirties were spent at a larger scientific organization, the Institute of Food Technologists. IFT provided me the opportunity to lead larger product portfolios and engage with a more diverse group of members and volunteers. I was fortunate enough to be supported by a supervisor who encouraged risk, and I remember being thrilled and terrified to lead opening remarks at one of our conferences. Could any of the C-suite execs in the audience see my trembling from the stage? If so, they were kind enough to not mention it. 

At IFT, I also observed a fascinating career transition that I reference often in career pathways discussions. Over the period of several years, one of my colleagues successfully advocated to transition from a director, to a manager, and ultimately to a coordinator position. My colleague’s rationale was they had reached their desired level in their career, their condo was paid off, and they wanted a change in their level of responsibilities while still being a meaningful contributor to the organization. As someone who was struggling with both internal and external expectations to climb to the next rung of the ladder, that was and continues to be, a powerful lesson about advocating for what’s right for me. And that’s not always about titles.

Pivoting my career to consulting four years ago has provided a whole new world (Aladdin earworm–you’re welcome) of leadership opportunities. Leveling up to match the extraordinary talents of my colleagues was my first challenge–and that’s not a shameless plug for our team at McKinley Advisors or a knock on any of the wonderful and talented people I’ve worked with over the years–it simply was. I’d been coasting for a few years and that wasn’t going to cut it anymore. 

Leading my first strategic planning project, leading my first presentation with a board, leading my board presentation with a very difficult board–there have been plenty of challenging and exciting firsts. And the companion reward for those firsts is watching one of my client associations change the world for the better and knowing I’ve been a part of that, even if it’s been through leadership behind the scenes. Finally, with greater self-awareness in my forties, I’ve found more joy in the opportunities to pay it forward. To coach and make space for what I used to be–a young professional. Of course, as a former sketch comedy performer, I’m not going to give up the stage ALL the time, but we’ve got a great ensemble going on here. 

I wonder what leadership lessons the next half century is going to teach me.

About the Author

George is a practice director at McKinley Advisors and the 2022-23 Chair of Association Forum’s Content Working Group.

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