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Susan Robertson: “You can’t do it alone”

I would help inspire a movement toward civil discourse, as I see through associations first-hand how the world works best when it works together. Finding a common purpose with others is a hallmark of associations, a community of leaders who have an ingrained ability to collaborate. While associations’ roots go back to America’s founding, over […]

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I would help inspire a movement toward civil discourse, as I see through associations first-hand how the world works best when it works together. Finding a common purpose with others is a hallmark of associations, a community of leaders who have an ingrained ability to collaborate. While associations’ roots go back to America’s founding, over time, we have perfected the art of working together so that industries, professions, and individuals can succeed to their fullest. I would love to inspire this for others, particularly in today’s climate.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Robertson the Executive Vice President of ASAE and President of the ASAE Foundation. ASAE is the association that represents associations and their professionals. During the past 15 years with ASAE, she has held a wide variety of roles and responsibilities including overall leadership of industry and market research and of the award-winning magazine, Associations Now. Her responsibilities include strategic and operational planning and the leadership of teams focused on finance, community, meetings, membership, marketing, advertising, sponsorship, fundraising, publishing, social media & website, communications and public relations, fundraising, research, and credentialing.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Like the majority of association professionals — there are millions of us — I “stumbled” on my association career. After relocating to the DC area, I responded to an ad in the Washington Post and luckily got the job at the National Office Products Association. My education began my first day on the job, and I haven’t looked back since. I moved up to become the Executive Director of the National Dealer Alliance before coming to ASAE 18 years ago. ASAE is the association the represents the entire community of associations and their staffs. Here, I have truly seen the limitless and positive impacts on society when an entire industry uses their professional expertise to help others in so many ways. Associations are organizations that represent trades or professions and are models for how by working together, so much good can be accomplished for the profession and for society at large. There are thousands of associations representing virtually every industry and profession. Young people should know how rewarding careers at associations are, and everyone should know how we contribute to making life better for people every day.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company or organization?

Our organization went through a merger in 2005 that was both interesting and difficult, as mergers can be. Once merged, the combined organizations had even more power and influence than either one by itself. I was profoundly struck by how the new association could shine a light on collective good of assocoations in the US and around the world. Just recently, I had the opportunity to help recognize a few associations for their work to make a stronger society. For example, the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores was recognized for its program to stop human trafficking by training their workers to recognize and report suspicious behavior. The American Society of Hematology improves outcomes for Sickle Cell Disease patients. The National Auto Body Council donates electric vehicles to first responders to give them hands-on training in the case of a crash. The Water Environment Federation certifies workers to construct, maintain, and inspect green infrastructure projects. And, these examples just scratch the surface of what associations do to make life better for people everywhere every day.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

What I really should describe is how associations across the U.S. and around the globe make a social impact. They are the ones who should be recognized for what they do. Collectively, our industry does more to help society than any other I know through volunteering, creating industry standards of quality and safety, developing programs that protect consumers from scams and other crimes, providing job training to create opportunity, and fostering a culture of diversity, inclusion, and civil discourse among all. Some examples include ensuring that patients get vital medicine and other help during times of natural disaster, those in need are provided with free dental care (including one program for Holocaust survivors), healthcare professionals of all types receive resources to improve patient care and outcomes, high school students are taught about careers in just about every field and industry…and list goes on and on.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your mission?

Not to sound like I am overstating this, but there is not one person who isn’t positively impacted by associations every day. Sometimes, we just don’t see how. Maybe it’s a safer roadway, airspace, or waterway, a better educated nurse or counselor, a more energy-efficient home, or a teen who is better educated about careers in a trade, engineering, or finance, for example.

Are there things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Because associations bring everyone in an industry or profession together, oftentimes, competitors must collaborate for the good of an industry and society at large. We are role models for civil discourse and working together to solve problems. We offer our expertise on issues and industries to politicians to help them create policies that work best for citizens. If the problem we are trying to solve is a stronger, safer society, then, we would ask that people seek us out to help solve our pressing problems.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as creating a vision that people can understand and work towards and have the skills to communicate it in ways that have the power to inspire others. Leadership also means never losing track of the fact that we are all human beings who deserve dignity and respect. Each of us has something to contribute and leaders should empower others to do their best work and find joy in so doing.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Be authentic: You can’t be someone you are not. At some point in your career, it just holds you back and becomes an obvious facade. People won’t trust you and trust is essential to effective leadership.
  2. You can’t do it alone: While we may be tempted and it seems easier, you alone can’t achieve as much as a collective. That’s how associations accomplish so much.
  3. Think before you share: Early on, I would sometimes speak up too soon, before an idea was formed, vetted or thought-through. I know better now.
  4. Regardless of how you get somewhere, it’s the journey that matters: While my career in association management was unplanned, I now have the ability to bring others into the profession and experience its rewards.
  5. You must have empathy: If you don’t care about what you are doing and the people you are doing it with, then you are in the wrong place.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would help inspire a movement toward civil discourse, as I see through associations first-hand how the world works best when it works together. Finding a common purpose with others is a hallmark of associations, a community of leaders who have an ingrained ability to collaborate. While associations’ roots go back to America’s founding, over time, we have perfected the art of working together so that industries, professions, and individuals can succeed to their fullest. I would love to inspire this for others, particularly in today’s climate.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Don’t waste energy fixing something that’s not broken. I learned early on in my career that if you spend time trying to prevent something from happening, you sometimes miss the root cause — you solve the wrong problem. You can also miss out on what’s possible.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I recently saw Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the airport. She had a glow and magnificent physical presence. Even though sh appeared quite fragile, I was struck by the power and grace she projected. She has the courage to consider some of the most important matters facing individuals and society. I would love to speak with her to ask her how she makes those bold decisions with such confidence and wisdom.

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