Why Become a Certified Association Executive?

What have you done for YOU lately? Consider taking the next step in your career by obtaining the Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential. We asked four VSAE members who recently earned the CAE credential about preparing for the exam and how investing in this professional designation has advanced their careers. The members are Kelly Ann Gull, CAE, Senior Manager, Governance & Executive Office for the National Society of Professional Engineeers;  Sarah Mattes Marshall, CAE, Executive Director for the VA College of Emergency Physicians; Michelle Runge, CAE, Director of Chapter Relations–Mid-Atlantic Region for the American Inns of Court; and Steven Williams, CAE, Partner with Hardiman-Williams, LLC.

What made you decide to pursue your CAE?

KG: After being in the association industry for many years, I knew I needed my CAE to take my career to the next level. I actually left my field and sought an opportunity to learn more about another area of association management. People were shocked at the time, but I went to work for an ASAE Fellow, an amazing mentor who modeled the CAE mindset. It was the best education and what I learned gave me the confidence to achieve my goal. 

SM: From my first VSAE event, I saw leaders in the organization with those three letters on their name tags and I knew that if I wanted what they had, I needed to push myself to earn that certification. Everything I learned about the CAE in preparing to apply for the exam just confirmed that it was a great decision. And most important is the incredible amount of association knowledge I gained in the process.

MR: I had been thinking about it for some time and wanted to pursue the credential as the next step in my professional career, and my current organization enthusiastically supported the endeavor.

SW: I’ve always admired the commitment of my fellow VSAE members that trained and tested for the CAE, though I had not been able to make it a priority myself to go after the designation. Sometimes “life” gets in the way. But taking on a board role within VSAE changed that for me. I felt it was important to hold the industry’s credential if I were (and now am) going to serve in industry leadership positions.


What resources did you find most helpful in preparing for the exam?

KG: Three resources proved very helpful in my preparations. First, I bought all the recommended reading materials. When I did not understand a concept, I could go to another book, look it up, and try to understand it in a different way. Second, I joined a VSAE study group which gave me a safe space to practice and discuss exam questions with support and no judgement. And, finally, one of my mentors, a CFO, was fundamental in helping me understand the financial concepts and statements, the area where I needed the most help. 

SM: The VSAE study group as a team and the instructors for the insight and resources.

MR: I basically lived in the Professional Practices in Association Management. The VSAE study group was a huge help and encouragement, and I sourced old practice exams wherever I could get them and used them for practice. That really helped me get my head around how to think about the exam questions.

SW: There are several books that were critical to my understanding of and success on the CAE exam. CAE Study Guide 2020 by Kathleen Edwards, Associations and the Law by Jerald Jacobs, Core Competencies in Association Professional Development by Terri Tracey and Kathleen Edwards, How to Read Nonprofit Financial Statements by Andrew Lang and Wayne Berson, Policies & Procedures in Association Management by ASAE Industry Research, and of course the Association Law Handbook by Jerald Jacobs.

What advice do you have for those preparing for the exam?

KG: If you have been in association work for a while, you will be surprised at what you already know. You just never categorized all that knowledge into an exam format. Having good mentors and professional development experiences prepares you for knowing the best choice to make when confronted with an association challenge. Learn how to apply that knowledge in the exam structure provided.

SM: Start two months earlier than you think you need to!

MR: It may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes the best thing you can do is to take a step back and stop studying. I would get frustrated with myself for not retaining what I was reading or for bombing a practice exam; eventually, I learned that was my brain’s cue that it needed a break.

SW: Believe in yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Is it easy to obtain the CAE? No. But can you do it? YES! There are many, many resources available from VSAE, ASAE, and others that can help you. The VSAE study groups, for example, are made up of association professionals just like you and meet regularly for two months to review content, take practice tests, and learn from experienced CAEs.   


How has earning your CAE helped you professionally?

KG: The CAE is valued at my organization and, within a year of earning my CAE, I was promoted to a Director position!

SM: It feels like I’ve been welcomed into a group of some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. And it’s an easy way to signify to those unfamiliar with our industry that you are dedicated to it and that you’ve taken the time to learn your business. I think it means a lot whether it’s to your boss, your board, or your future employer.

MR: It has certainly helped me approach organizational challenges from a more strategic, holistic mindset. Intangibly, it boosted my confidence as an association professional and led me to pursue other competitive professional development opportunities. An unanticipated but wonderful byproduct of studying for the exam was expanding my professional network: I met dozens of brilliant association professionals from all over the country, working in all sorts of industries.

SW: I received a number of congratulatory emails from my peers and colleagues as soon as they heard about my CAE. Sentiments like that always help to put a little wind in one’s sails, professionally and personally.

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