CAE. Certified Association Executive. Many of my friends outside the association industry ask, “what does that mean exactly?” According to ASAE, it means I have demonstrated “the knowledge essential to the practice of association management.” After reading this post, you may decide that in my case it should be renamed Certified Association Geek.

The CAE journey gave me a deeper knowledge and understanding of association management, particularly in areas I never had the opportunity to delve into before. Reading the texts while reflecting upon my ten years of association experience gave me a much better grasp of the challenges of leading and managing an association. My mind grappled with a wide range of topics from the minutia of reporting requirements for lobbying to the more interesting concepts of shared leadership and strategic thinking.

Every week, a new domain entered my life: strategic management; planning and research; leadership; administration; knowledge management; governance and structure; public policy and governmental and external relations; membership; programs, products and services; and public relations and external communications. With each domain came lots of reading, quizzes and a conference call with my study group. I looked forward to my reading time, taking notes as I went, reflecting on what I was reading, what I had seen and how things are changing. I was amazed at how long I would study on weekends. It was a good experience; I knew my knowledge was deepening.

On test day, there was a strange moment about an hour into it when I said to myself, “this is kind of fun.” It might have been the coffee talking, or more likely, I was on a roll with some easy questions. By the end of the four hours, by brain was mush. I was drained. I remember thinking, if I had to bet money, I would bet I passed, but who knows. It was over, all those months of study, over. It was strange putting those books away. The books I had lived with for so long. Then I realized, I have my weekends back and I had a Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale.

Fast forward six weeks and a few days later to this past Tuesday. While running around town that afternoon I got an email from my CAE study buddy, Sandra Giarde, saying the results were out. Our Twitter buddy Aaron announced that he passed. I checked the mailbox on my way home. Empty. The mail was late, really late. Then I had a conference call and couldn’t check the mail for over an hour. Meanwhile three of us who took the exam were emailing back and forth – messages of dread and silliness. After the call I walked back to the mailbox and there they were — two postal workers distributing the mail among the boxes. “Have you done the other side yet?” My side of the boxes. “No ma’am.” I walked home. My palms were sweaty, my heart was racing.

I waited about 20 minutes and walked back, the mail truck was gone. The mailboxes never looked so ominous. I opened my box. It was full of mail. I quickly flipped through the envelopes and magazines, searching for that one envelope. Oh boy. There it is – a business envelope from ASAE marked “confidential.” Moment of truth. I tore it open with my key. “Dear Ms. Reid:” was all I could read on the first fold. Quickly I turned it over and saw the word “Congratulations!” “YES!” I shouted out, and then thought, oh wait, I better make sure, and quickly scanned and saw enough to know that yes, indeed, I had passed the exam and could proudly put the letters CAE after my name. I let out another whoop and skipped home with a huge grin on my face. I wonder what the neighbors thought. If anyone had been at the boxes with me, I might have hugged them.

I wasn’t expecting to be so over the top happy, my reaction surprised me. But I knew that if I hadn’t passed, I would have been so disappointed and devastated; never mind the blow to my pride and ego. All the work, the sacrificed weekends and the new love for my profession – it all paid off in the end.

The letters CAE, they’re validation of what I know, what I’ve been through. But the best thing about this whole process was the journey — the learning, the thinking. Everyone’s CAE experience is probably a bit different. We come to it with varying levels of management and leadership experience, areas of expertise, and views on association challenges and opportunities. We approach the study process in different ways. But no matter the final results, going through the process is a huge accomplishment and stands on its own. Passing makes it sweeter.

If you find our industry at all fascinating and would like a rewarding learning experience, I strongly encourage you to study for the CAE exam. I call it a “journey” because it’s like one of those memorable trips to somewhere new and different. I knew where I was heading — the exam. I had my maps — the study guide and texts. I met some people along the way — my study group. But the best part was the studying and learning — being in the experience — the journey.