Earning CAE

Earning the CAE: One Candidate's Experience

Listen in on this conversation about one association executive’s journey to earning the Certified Association Executive credential. She shares tips and lessons for future CAE candidates.

The Certified Association Executive credential is the hallmark of a highly knowledgeable and committed association executive, earned through ongoing education and successful completion of the CAE exam. Preparing for and taking the exam take time and hard work. In this conversation with association consultant John B. McHugh, Liz Novak, MBA, CAE, looks back on her journey and offers advice for others setting out to earn the credential.

What prompted you to seek the CAE at mid-career?

It seemed like the next logical step for me, as my job has evolved from managing editor to marketing director to a senior director role. I decided to sit for the December 2017 exam because I knew that through various professional development programs I had earned close to the required number of CAE credits to qualify to take the exam, and I knew that some of those credits would expire in the next year or two.

I’ve heard that the CAE application is detailed and thorough. What tips do you have to assist aspiring CAEs in the application process?

When I first downloaded the application from the ASAE website, I was completely intimidated. In addition to the information you’d expect to provide, it asked for an accounting of every CAE credit I’d earned, including date, presenter, presenter’s organization, sponsoring organization, a full description, and the number of CAE credits associated with it. I had completed some programs that had a substantial number of CAE credits associated with them, but I also had attended many webinars that only earned 1 or 1.5 credits.

Fortunately, I had saved all my registration information and all the post-webinar emails that included a certificate of completion, so I was able to find all of that information, but it was time-consuming. Also, just to be sure, I printed every certificate of completion and included it with my application. I don’t know if that’s what a typical CAE candidate does, but it made me feel better. In general, I treated the application process like I do most large projects: I divided it into bite-size pieces and worked through it as I was able to fit it into my schedule.

In retrospect, I wish I’d filled in the application as I earned the credits. I’m doing that now for my CAE renewal.

After your CAE application was accepted, how much time did you have to prepare for the exam?

I didn’t wait to find out whether my application was accepted before I began preparing. The application was due around mid-September. I’d purchased the books the previous May and began reading over the summer. My study group started meeting on September 20. The first thing we learned was that there’s a lot of reading involved, and it’s never too early to start.

My advice to anyone who is considering taking the exam is to get the books (ASAE offers several core resources on association management), get the CAE Study Guide, and start reading.

Did your on-the-job experience in association management help you in your CAE preparation and when you sat for the exam? 

Having the kind of exposure I’ve had to so many different facets of association management made all the difference in the world to me during the CAE process. Those who are already CSEs (chief staff executive, the title the CAE prep materials use to refer to an executive director or CEO) or have a deputy-like role are at an advantage compared to those who are more focused on one particular aspect of association management.

You participated in a CAE study group. How did you find a group that was right for you? Explain how your study group worked.   

The Kansas City Society of Association Executives has a great local program, so I joined it. They have something like a 92 percent pass rate, so I felt like I was in good hands. Also, it helped me get to know some other local association executives, whether they were leading the discussions or participating in them.

Our study group met for eight consecutive weeks, two hours per meeting. We had our reading assignments ahead of time. The study guide has example test questions at the end of each “domain” (the sections represented in the exam). We took those tests on our own and used our time together to review and discuss the questions. One of the most helpful things to me was to hear the group discussing why the wrong answers were wrong.

How valuable was the study group to your preparation process?

When I was thinking about joining the study group, I wasn’t convinced it would help, but I turned into a believer. I liked hearing the different perspectives from the other people in the group. It also helped to know that I wasn’t alone on this journey. My study group was very supportive every step of the way.

What strategy did you use during the exam?

The exam consists of 200 multiple-choice questions, and you must complete it in four hours. I knew from my practice tests that I had enough time to finish it, so I went through the questions methodically and finished in two and a half hours. The first time through it, I was looking for the “right” answer. I used the rest of my time to go through it again and figure out why the other possible answers weren’t correct. I think I ended up changing four responses that second time through. I did use the entire four-hour time period, but I knew this approach was best for me.

Do you have any additional suggestions for current or future CAE candidates?

The bottom line for me was to put the work in, give up a lot of my “normal” life for a few months to dedicate the time to it, and enjoy the ability to apply what I was learning.

Liz Novak, MBA, CAE, is senior director of marketing and advocacy and editor-in-chief at the International Association of Plastics Distribution in Overland Park, Kansas. Email: [email protected]

John B. McHugh, a longtime association publishing executive, is a consultant advising associations in a variety of areas, including publishing, executive recruiting, and new ventures. Email: [email protected]


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