‘Just Be Curious’ Advises 36-Year Events Industry Veteran

As she retires from Smithbucklin, Carol McGury reflects on the highlights and challenges that have made her long career at the company and in volunteer leadership roles so fulfilling.

Author: Michelle Russell       

woman in glasses smiling in front of trees

Carol McGury, who served on the PCMA Foundation Board from 2015-2022 and as chair in 2019, will retire at the end of June after a 36-year career at Smithbucklin.

When Carol McGury retires from Smithbucklin at the end of June, she will have logged 36 years at the professional services company serving industry associations, most recently as executive vice president, event and education services. That length of tenure at one company, a rarity in itself in the workplace today, is even more remarkable given that Smithbucklin has been McGury’s only employer — she literally stepped out of her university graduation cap and gown one day and into Smithbucklin’s offices the next.

In a recent video call with Convene, McGury called to mind what experiences stand out to her across the variety of leadership roles she has held at the company and as a volunteer, how she thinks associations will need to change to appeal to the next generation, and what qualities she thinks are necessary for professional success.

Getting Started

I went to St. Xavier University, a small Catholic university in Chicago. I had a communications professor who said, “Hey, I’ve heard of this organization called Smithbucklin and I have a friend there. It’s a unique business — it’s associations — but I’ve heard a lot of good things about it.”

There were two positions: One was for a meeting planner and one was for a membership associate. I applied for the meeting planner role because I was the president of our student government when I was at St. Xavier and I helped organize our student government retreat — and so I thought I could be the meeting planner. I didn’t get that job but was offered the membership associate position.

It was 1988 and jobs weren’t easy to get. My entry-level salary was $18,000 and the advertising jobs I was looking at paid $9,000. I chose the Smithbucklin route because it was so much more money — and there it is. I loved what I was doing and I moved up quickly in the company and decided not to pursue becoming an attorney, something I had considered after graduation. I was traveling and I just loved it. I eventually moved up to become an executive director in our technology industry practice.

It was fast-paced. I was working with technology communities, but a lot with technology corporations like IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and Siemens too — I had the best of both worlds. They were user groups so they were customers who used a specific software, hardware, or technology architecture and needed education and learning and access to a community to support their career development. [The sector] was growing significantly. It was great to get to start my career that way and be able to move into senior leadership to lead a few of those organizations over the years.

Learning on the Job

I learned a lot of skills when I was working with this technology practice, mainly because it required strategy, marketing, community engagement, and product development to drive growth for these technology communities — although the user groups were associations, they were executed with a corporate mindset. I had some visibility into education because when I first started at Smithbucklin, there were no units. There was maybe a slight practice with events, but there wasn’t an official event-planning and education team. I did a little bit of education when I was working on the user group program development. I [was put in an education role and it became] sort of a turnaround [situation]. I had [a sort of reputation] in the company where I could come in, stabilize and get some things in place from a business perspective. Then I learned curriculum, education development. I learned what certification was and how adults learn. I just immersed myself in written materials, I attended a lot of webinars, I went to some conferences, and then I would learn from the team because they were knowledgeable in that area. We evolved the skill sets of that team over time in terms of going from being generalists to more specialists in delivering education design and curriculum.

A lot of the role is strategic partnerships, building relationships with universities, and initiatives like that to bring back to the association. Then on the event side, we ran huge conferences. The smallest conference I think we had was 3,000 people. Some of the largest ones were 6,000-8,000+ participants. I had exposure to all of that, not hands-on, but working with the corporation and understanding and having their voice at the table and then participating in some of the very large events that Oracle and Microsoft ran with their corporate team.

I then stepped in to play a role with a new client, PTC, a software company. We had five events, one in North America, Japan, France, Germany, and in China — the international ones within two months of each other. They were 1,000 –2,000-plus-person shows. I provided oversight of the whole team to get that going and that was the prelude to me stepping into event services.

Future of Associations

In our 75-year history of working with associations, we’ve found that individuals are joining associations once their career is more established. What’s different with the next-gen audience is that they’re going through a cycle of potentially multiple careers, definitely multiple companies, and so they will join, but they will join later in their career.

That said, they’re not going to join your grandfather/grandmother’s association. We’ve seen that the next-gen wants their voice to be leveraged and used to help advance decisions and the outputs of the association or profession versus being passive members; they want to be an active member and volunteer right away. That’s one attribute, I think, of how someone would engage in an association a little bit differently than prior generations.

The value proposition for getting people to association events today is vastly different than it used to be. People have control and many options to pick and choose what they want, so they’re looking for events that are enticing and interesting and align with their values — then they’ll engage. The products and services the association offers have to shift in order to meet their current and evolving needs and on their time — less on a 9:00 to 5:00 mentality of when people want to do business. I believe [face-to-face events will] continue but they’re going to have to adapt, especially with the influence of AI and other technological ways you can get information.

I think the next generation needs associations more than ever because they’ve been isolated during COVID. They have become more insular — not everybody, but a lot have. Networking is still incredibly important to advancing your career. It just is.

Making the Experience Meaningful

Events have to morph into meeting next-gen’s needs and values. A good example is next-gen wants to attend a show or to participate with an association that embraces sustainability.

Associations have their own mission statements but a lot of them are, “We’re going to impact the community of X, Y, Z to benefit X, Y, Z,” vs. more intrinsic values like, “Here’s how we’re changing the world.” I think more associations that embrace that and understand how to connect the dots to their potential buyers, which are their potential members or participants, whatever their business model is, are going to be more successful.

Next-gen wants to know how they are going to make a meaningful difference both in what they do at their company and how they participate at events. I don’t think it’s a “nice-to- have” thing. Even with the Boomer generation and a lot of Gen X and Gen Y — you have more people aligning on values.

People see the good in giving back and want to participate and support organizations that help others. Even if it’s a trade association that’s about advancing equipment sales or equipment design, you can still “dotted line it” back to, “Here’s what that organization and a collection of companies are doing to help advance an industry.” It’s just telling the story. I don’t think a lot of associations tell the story.

On Skills Essential to Success

One of the things I’ve always told my team is: “Just be curious.” People aren’t curious. Be curious and let that truly fuel you and guide you and challenge what you’re seeing.

I’ve seen my team shift to embracing opportunities to learn how to manage difficult people and work through challenging situations. If you come across conflict, how do you manage through that? How do you build trust? How do you network? The team is very eager to learn more soft skills. You could be the best widget maker, but if you don’t know how to work a room, how to build trust, position yourself, and communicate effectively, [it will be more challenging] for you to be successful.

I consider the folks who are on my “senior team” as those folks who I’ve developed. Many of them have worked for me probably at least 10 years. We’ve been in business situations where sometimes it’s not an official, “This is a mentoring session.” It’s working through a problem together. I don’t always do it right, but they observe how I’ve approached it, what I’ve asked, how we’ve then worked together to go through it, and then how afterwards we dissected it to say what could we have done differently? Having them, again, be curious about that and really challenge the approach I have has proved to be beneficial.

I’ve been an active and hands-on advocate for women in leadership. I am known to be tough but fair and have tried to coach other females who worked on my team to be focused, determined, and steadfast. I’ve been told many times I have no fear. I’ve tried to instill this in others.

Career Highlights

My time with PCMA [McGury served on the PCMA Foundation Board from 2015-2022 and as chair in 2019] has been truly one of my career highlights because of the caliber of individuals I’ve engaged with on the board, the staff, and the experiences I had and what I learned. PCMA was so welcoming — the board members were welcoming, and I was given the opportunity to engage with different programs and learning environments.

This is more of a downer, but it was such a learning opportunity — maneuvering through 9/11 when I had an event. I was working with a Microsoft user group and our event was going to be in Orlando the week of. Then we had teams spread across the country that we had to get back to Chicago and Washington, D.C., because they couldn’t fly.

Getting through that unprecedented situation where we all just hunkered down and figured it out — it was horrible, but we came out stronger. I came out stronger in terms of being able to do things and think of things that we never thought of before. We kept our business and the business of our clients going and our teams solid — it was stressful for everybody. The whole period of crisis and working through what you do and how you do it and how you really rely on your team was really a significant memory for me, for sure — and that translated to COVID as well.

Resilience is a theme for me — it’s a strength I have and what I instilled in the teams I worked with. We work in a business where change happens constantly and surprises are numerous. For the many challenges and incredible opportunities we faced, we came through it with learnings and humor. I don’t think I have a future in stand-up comedy, but I do like to lighten up challenging situations and put people at ease with some humor.

In terms of places I’ve been fortunate to travel to — one of the most interesting business trips was to St. Petersburg, Russia, which I visited for INCON. I’m so thankful I had that opportunity to spend several days there and see the culture.

Plans for Retirement

I’m taking time off but will be involved in some way — I don’t know what that means yet. I’m very involved in groups outside of the industry and in local government as well as with other philanthropic organizations. My hope is to continue to engage in those areas.

My mom will be 87 this year and it’s really important that I spend as much time as I can with her. That was one of the drivers for my decision to retire. Having had some friends who, unfortunately, passed away last year at a very early age, it got me reflecting. It’s one of many factors that contributed to this decision. I want to focus on other passions and interests and life is really, truly too short.

Final Thoughts

I attribute my success to the terrific people I worked with. I was so fortunate to have smart, hard-working, and resilient team members who worked with me in many different capacities over the years. So many hours of laughter along the way (and nobody ever got arrested!).

I’d like to thank those who believed in me and gave me opportunities for growth. I would not have stayed at Smithbucklin had I not had internal champions — my first boss, Lynn Schwartz, our former CEO Henry Givray, and our current CEO, Matt Sanderson. I’ve had incredible folks who believed in me — given me the opportunity even when I didn’t yet have the skill sets but thought I could do it.

I’m also indebted to former PCMA President and CEO Deborah Sexton and current PCMA President and CEO Sherrif Karamat for introducing me to leadership opportunities within PCMA and allowing me to experience such an amazing organization.

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