Michelle Mason Comes Full Circle

After stumbling into association management, Mason turned barriers into opportunities and used her platform to elevate others who are underrepresented. She now leads ASAE as president and CEO.

Author: Curt Wagner       

Michelle Mason

Michelle Mason, now president and CEO for ASAE, attends the PCMA Visionary Awards in August. Mason is the latest industry trailblazer to be honored as a PCMA Groundbreaker. (Eddie Arrossi/EA Photo)

Editor’s note: PCMA Groundbreakers is an initiative honoring industry trailblazers who represent diverse sectors of the business events community, recognizing those who have made a significant contribution to their organizations and programs that advance inclusion and equity. Conceived by PCMA’s Black Lives Matter Working Group, the honor helps to create a living history of pioneers in the business events industry.

When Michelle Mason learned she had been selected as the new president and CEO of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), she didn’t think about the fact that she would be the first Black person, and only the second woman, to lead ASAE in its 100-year history. “What came into my mind was,” she told Convene, “I am qualified for this role. And I happen to be a Black woman.”

That self-belief has led Mason through a career spanning more than 25 years during which she has added an impressive list of acronyms to the end of her name: Certified Association Executive (CAE), Certified Quality Improvement Associate (CQIA), and Six Sigma Champion (SSCC). An ASAE Fellow (FASAE), Mason also is an Aspen Institute Ideas Fellow. She has earned a BA, MBA, and MS, and completed the SmithBucklin Leadership Institute.

Most of these certifications came after she “stumbled into association management” at her first job — a staff assistant at the Chemical Manufacturers Association, now called American Chemistry Council (ACC). “I actually started off as a temporary and I didn’t know about the sector. It was really at that time more of a job for me,” she said. “As I began to learn more about associations, I realized that [the sector] had such diversity, that it focused on people — the membership. And that it could have such a societal impact. I learned that this was the sector where I just wanted to build my career.”

Over the next 20-some years, Mason acquired new skills and honed her leadership style, serving as vice president of strategic and future focused research at ASAE in Washington, D.C., managing director at the American Society for Quality (ASQ) in Milwaukee, and most recently as president and CEO of Association Forum in Chicago.

I want to use my platform to help others understand how we create a very inclusive environment where all are valued, all are heard in a very authentic way. I do that through education. I do that through representation. I do that through uplifting others.”

Michelle Mason, ASAE president and CEO

Among her achievements over her seven years at Association Forum, Mason said, was being able to present association management as a career path for underrepresented communities — something she has always considered to be her mission. There were times in her career, she said, when she didn’t feel her voice was being heard, but she flipped that around.

“I don’t see barriers; I see opportunities,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to educate. It’s an opportunity to dispel myths, to help understand and reframe the conversation. … I want to use my platform to help others understand how we create a very inclusive environment where all are valued, all are heard in a very authentic way. I do that through education. I do that through representation. I do that through uplifting others.”

Mason approached diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in a new way for Association Forum, introducing an initiative called Welcoming Environment to the organization. Welcoming Environment serves as a resource tool on Association Forum’s website, featuring articles, conversation circle videos on racial inequality, research, webinars, and other content. “It basically focuses on the creation of a sense of belonging and connectedness that engages individuals in an authentic manner,” she said. That kind of inclusive environment drives deeper engagement within the association community, increases revenue, and builds sustainable relationships, she said, adding that DEI gives organizations a strategic advantage.

Mason will continue her DEI mission at ASAE, which she said, “has a very strong history of supporting diverse leaders” and of delivering services to help associations navigate diversity and inclusion.

‘Just a Different House’

Being back at ASAE feels like a homecoming, “but it’s just a different house,” Mason told Convene only six days into the new role. After spending 15 years away from Washington, D.C., she is happy to be back where she grew up, and around her family again, she said. And she is looking forward to helping ASAE continue its service to the association industry. “I believe in servant leadership and so I’m looking forward to helping our members and our member organizations become more effective through [our programs] as they navigate uncertainty,” she said, referring to the pandemic.

“I think that last year, if anything, taught us that this is a time of change. Last year taught us that the old playbook is out the door. There’s a new playbook and so we really need to be thinking about our associations in a very different way,” she said.

Organizations need to focus on members first, she said, to remain relevant and offer a value proposition. One way to achieve this goal is experiment with, test, and ultimately deliver resources that will help members successfully adjust to the ever-changing landscape of virtual, hybrid, and safe in-person meetings, she said.

“And I really embrace change,” she said, “so I’m looking forward to helping the association community be better prepared for the future.”

Curt Wagner is digital editor at Convene.

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