I've had my business since 1998, and it took me way too long to understand the power of industry trade organizations.
What was the real point of an association anyway? I always thought it was something to "prove" you were a legitimate company in your space, and because of that, I paid my annual dues and was a "proud" member of my industry's association, the American Staffing Association (ASA).
I went to one trade show and went to some learning sessions, and I felt like an outsider as so many people knew one another.
I have grown my company successfully over the years (12 times on the Inc. 5000 list), and I found some of the sessions to be "basics." It further fueled my wonderment about the value of any association.
It was in the late 2000's when I finally figured it out. There's an expression in Entrepreneurs' Organization and Young Presidents' Organization, "You're responsible for your own experience." It's true in everything you do.
When the Affordable Care Act came out, I knew it would greatly impact my business. We file thousands of W-2's annually, mostly for hourly workers. When figuring out how to handle, we thankfully had an industry resource...and so we turned to the ASA.
After that interaction, I started to actively participate. I went to the annual conference every year. It's hard, even for a proactive, type-A salesperson. How did everyone know one another? What were they talking about? What could I learn?
After about the third year, I really knew the people. Before I went, I was receiving texts and emails about getting together with people (in later years I would initiate them). I took meetings with vendors who wanted to sell me their goods, to learn more. As weird as it sounds now, I wouldn't take meetings because I assumed that I didn't want what they were selling, but I had no idea what they were selling! Once I took the meetings, I then met new people, and I could participate in conversations with my peers about these products.
It takes a lot of work. It takes removing your ego to learn from peers. It takes being emotionally ready to leave the office for a few days to focus on something else. It takes an investment of dollars to attend the conferences. It takes goal setting and discipline to know what you want to accomplish, and then following up and thinking about what you did while there.
There will always be reasons not to do things. It's too much time away. I don't want to share secrets with my peers. There are better ways to use my time. I dislike small talk.
If it was your kid who didn't want to go to high school or who was scared about college, you would tell them to get involved in activities, make a goal of one friend, study in the library versus at home to meet people, etc. It's the same thing in your career as a CEO/entrepreneur/executive, or if you want to be any of the above.
All these years later, I'm on the board of our industry association and have made lifelong friends in my industry, learning more than I ever thought possible.