Brad Larson had just taken a job in the treasury department of his company and he had no idea what he was doing -- he was completely clueless. So he turned to the Association for Financial Professionals (AFP), an industry organization designed for financial workers in a variety of fields. He wasn't sure how to make best use of the organization, but he learned quickly.
At first, Larson ordered up a study book on treasury department responsibilities and rules -- a first step toward getting certified in his field. The book had so much information about his job that he figured the association probably offered even more behind its textbooks. So Larson began attending AFP meetings and conferences. At first, he just listened and learned from people in positions like his. These days, he serves on the group's board and on its government relations committee.
"I found that every time I went to a meeting or conference, I came back with a good idea that I was able to implement," says Larson, who is now the vice-president and global president for Claire's Stores. In some cases, those ideas saved his companies hundreds of thousands of dollars. "As I got more involved, it was a great place to exchange ideas and become smart at what I was doing."
A few years later, Larson was looking through the AFP's job listings and saw a great job. He applied and says, "It was one of the best jobs I had in my entire career." And since, he's received calls from recruiters -- referred to him by other AFP members and he has referred others for jobs, too.
Larson's experience is not atypical -- at least not for financial professionals who immerse themselves in industry associations. These groups -- and there are dozens geared toward various financial sectors -- range from full-service associations that offer conferences, education programs, certifications, networking and job boards to others that are geared more toward networking and connecting.
People Just Like You -- Just More of Them
For starters, industry associations are full of people just like you -- professionals in financial fields who are looking to learn and meet others. You might think you do plenty of that at work, particularly if you work for a large company, but Matt Bud, who heads the Financial Executives Networking Group, says the point of an industry group is to broaden who you know.
"Most of the time people only know other people inside their companies, especially if they are early in their careers," says Bud, whose group has several dozen chapters and sends out a five-day-a-week career advice-oriented newsletter to members. "Large companies keep you very busy and are pretty insular." You might meet people in other divisions or groups, but, says Bud, "the real goal in managing your career is knowing people from all kinds of companies."
Stephen Horan of the CFA Institute agrees. If you only rely on people at your firm for growing your career and moving up the ladder, "you're really narrowing your options," says Horan. "Many of the leaders in your industry will reside outside the four walls of your employer." One of the few ways you can meet those people quickly and effectively, is by getting involved in an industry association.
Once you do, you'll be exposed to different practices, new ways of thinking and -- perhaps most importantly for times when jobs are scarce -- you'll meet people from other firms through association meetings and communities.
Staying in Network
One significant reason for joining such groups is the network you can build. Networking with fellow members is different than chatting up professionals in non-industry-specific settings because association members are much more willing to take the time to talk to you because you've got more in common, say experts. "This kind of networking is the key to getting to know people who will be relevant to your career in this industry," says Bud.
What's more, recruiters and company hiring managers say they often seek out potential hires at the meetings, conferences and other events that professional groups host. To increase your odds of landing on a recruiter's radar, you'll need to participate in association events instead of just attending them, say recruiters and hiring managers. And for financial professionals, these connections are even more critical: Outside of first jobs, many positions are filled through recommendations from the already-employed or through recruiting firms hired to cherry-pick the best and brightest analysts, accountants and risk managers, among others.
Education and Certifications
There's a reason behind this preference: Most associations for financial professionals have a heavy education and certification component. The CFA Institute, for example, not only offers training and preparation for the CFA Charter exams and continuing education components, the association also offers other certifications -- like a Certificate in Investment Performance Management -- and classes or seminars on everything from private equity to mergers & acquisitions. The association also offers online community groups -- such as one geared toward private wealth managers -- in addition to local chapters with speaker series and meetings.
The FPA goes even further than its certifications, regular conferences and online and offline communities, offering an extensive Web site of go-to information on the latest rules, best practices and educational materials across financial sectors.
Finding the Right Association
To find the right association for you, first "identify a group that most closely meets your needs and is most highly correlated with where you want to be," says Horan. Look for educational and networking opportunities as well as career advice, a job board and certifications that are relevant to what you want to do. Look for member testimonials when considering smaller, less-established financial professional associations. Keep in mind that some associations offer different levels of memberships. The CFA Institute, for example, has different levels for those pursuing the CFA and those who simply agree to abide by the professional code of conduct. And remember, it will cost you anywhere from about $100 a year to upwards of $400 a year to join. But that price often gives you access to free educational materials, group meetings and more.
Once you've identified the right association, don't just join and sit in the back of the room at meetings. Instead, get involved as soon as you're comfortable. "I didn't expect I'd be able to contribute anything when I joined (AFP)," says Larson. "I wanted to learn something." For a while, Larson attended quietly. "But eventually I found I did have some ideas or I had questions for people and then pretty soon I was (comfortable enough) to tell them what I thought and then people would come to me to talk about those ideas." It wasn't long before Larson began volunteering on committees and, later, with email groups.
Says Bud, whose group focuses on networking for financial professionals, being active can be simple. "Volunteer to do something like run a meeting or offer to be on a committee that reviews accounting statutes or latest management news," he says. "How you contribute can be based on your skills."
The more you get involved, the more likely you are to get noticed by your peers, competitors and recruiters. "It can distinguish you in your career," says Horan. "If you take a leadership role on a committee or a working group, it's something people recognize and you can carry that experience with you in the marketplace." He and others recommend adding your leadership or involvement in industry associations to your resume or cover letter. "It's like a feather in one's cap."
-- Jennifer Merritt
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