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The certified association executive

3 min read

Having worked in three levels of Canadian government and industry, predominantly as a consultant, Jim Pealow says he instantly fell in love with association management.

“I used to have maybe eight meetings a week and when I got involved in the association field, I only had maybe four or five meetings a year with the type of organisation I was with. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” he recalls.

Like Pealow, most people who fall into association management often haven’t done association-specific study. “Trying to find an MBA in association management is very hard and, once in an association management role, it can be difficult to pursue professional development courses such as an MBA.”

When the Canadian Society of Association Executives (CSAE) asked him to create the Certified Association Executive (CAE) course, Pealow jumped at the chance.

“The issues faced by association executives present a unique challenge to the men and women who face them. Bouncing between internal demands and external pressures is a daily battle faced by association executives the world over,” says Pealow.

He declares that courses such as the CAE are crucial for today’s association executives to deal with these unique challenges. Pealow says that many graduates of the CAE have said “I knew certain things but I really didn’t know it from an association perspective and this helped me zero in on the challenges.”

Professional development tools

Pealow says it’s important to set career goals. Using the CAE competencies allows association executives to identify gaps in their knowledge and achieve their career goals.

“Students and graduates can look at competencies required of the desired position or level, then based on competencies required versus competencies they have, they’re able to develop a career management plan in order to get from A to B.”

All online

In 1997, the CAE was one of the first courses to go online. In the early years it was difficult, but now new technologies are improving the experience for both students and teachers.

“We can have a web cam with someone sitting in their pyjamas while we talk about strategic planning.

“Some of these people I’ve never met before other than online and there’s a bond between us, and it’s a very good feeling.

“Being fully online, the CAE is perfect for time-stretched association executives,” says Pealow. “Online can be taken anywhere in the world where there’s internet so people don’t have to go to a classroom at seven pm on a Thursday night. They can stay home and do the work at two o’clock in the morning or whenever they feel comfortable learning.”

This also means CAE students are from around the world, facilitating enriched learning by allowing transnational knowledge transfer. “You get a much broader perspective and there’s tool-sharing,” he says.

Benefits of CAE

“The beauty of this course and the program is that the assignments are very practical,” says Pealow.

“For example, if you were a student in the course, one of your assignments might be to develop a communications plan for your association. Employers love this and boards love this because they are getting something practical out of it. Some of the projects I’ve seen as part of the assignments, if you were to hire a consultant, would have cost you anywhere from $5,000-$15,000 for the work that’s been completed.

“Knowledge, skill and attitude are so critical in terms of being successful,” says Pealow, “and the CAE demonstrates this character set to employers.

“The associations that hire somebody with accreditation get an individual who has proven themselves by completing the courses, passing the exam and having the appropriate work experience. The associations benefit by having that type of calibre on staff.

“CSAE does an annual compensation survey, which says CAEs make more than those that don’t have the qualification. People who go for the accreditation are more driven, have lots of leadership abilities so they rise to the top and get some of the better positions, and that’s why they make more.”

International perspective

Pealow is currently doing international consulting work in former communist countries.

“I’ve found that there really is no association management force or organisations to serve people in these countries. People in Australia and Canada should be thankful that we have associations like AuSAE and CSAE to help us grow stronger in our careers.”


  • Allows students to tailor it to fill in their knowledge and experience gaps.
  • Students complete five courses, and then sit the final exam to receive CAE designation.
  • All assessment is competency based, making outcomes easily definable.
  • The PLAR for mature candidates with advanced standing allows more experienced candidates to fast-track their courses.
  • Every 3-5 years, a review panel works with Pealow to review all lessons in the various courses and then upgrade readings, assignments and discussion areas where required.
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