Shaping My Purpose Through Professional Learning

After attending the ASAE Annual Meeting, NAESP Associate Executive Director, Professional Learning, Gracie Branch highlights takeaways from the conference that helped her reflect on her purpose as a leader—and how she can use it in her work to support educators through professional learning.

At NAESP, we practice what we preach. In August, the NAESP leadership team attended the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) Annual Meeting and Expo at the World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia. I always describe ASAE as the association for all other associations, so it consists of a huge membership.

Taking Time for Reflection

I went into the conference without any preconceived notions, though I have heard it is always spectacular. The theme of this year’s conference is “Shape Your Purpose,” which gives me an incredible opportunity to reflect on my own. Although, I do not have a handy, concise definition for my purpose, I would say the following statements are top of mind as I approach the upcoming year with NAESP:

  • Helping and supporting principals to build a brighter future for themselves and school communities;
  • Making a difference for our members in terms of quality service;
  • Reflecting on what we do well as a staff and what we can do better by thinking innovatively about our practice;
  • Continuing to learn and grow as a leader; and
  • Wanting to leave my association in a better place, my team in a better place, and public education in a better place.

All Work—And Some Play, Too!

As a leader in professional learning, I know the importance of balancing work with fun. So did the event planners for this conference. The ASAE meeting began with an opening ceremony that did not disappoint. Pop icons TLC took the main stage at Mercedes-Benz stadium. We were down on the field along with thousands of other people. The highlights of the night were, of course, TLC; being on the 50-yard line; and spending time with my NAESP colleagues.

Then the learning started. Throughout the conference, I found myself inspired by three keynote speakers—whose unique paths in life and leadership shaped their purposes. All three overcame challenges and found success as leaders, and they shared takeaways to help others—like me, a former school principal and an advocate for professional learning at NAESP—reflect on their purposes and find ways to grow as leaders.

I was looking forward to the opening keynote speaker Daymond John, Shark Tank extraordinaire. During his keynote, John weaved stories about his life and entrepreneurial success into the following five guiding principles—or Shark Points, as he calls them—that association professionals can use to advance their careers. I believe that they also hold relevance for school leaders. They are:

  1. Set goals: Become what you think about the most and take action to reach it.
  2. Do your homework: It’s all about coming up with new ways to deliver to your audience.
  3. Love what you do: He called this “Amore.”
  4. Remember the brand: What two to five words would you use to describe yourself and your association in an elevator pitch?
  5. Keep swimming: It is important to keep in good physical health.

The second keynote speaker, Chad Foster, is the author of the book Blind Ambition. He spoke about overcoming fear and hopelessness to turn his disability into one of his greatest strengths. The first blind person to graduate from the Harvard Business School leadership program, Foster shared his inspiring story of determination, drive, and ambition to rise to the top of the corporate ladder. Participants left with a message of hope and conquering all obstacles to accomplish their goals.

Soledad O’Brien, an award-winning journalist, speaker, author, and philanthropist, served as the closing keynote speaker. Her dedication to telling empowering and authentic stories on social issues was evident in her presentation. She shared her personal life journey focusing on trust, truth, and humble beginnings.  

Catalysts For Change

I also attended all three of the Catalyst Speaker Sessions, and they did not disappoint.  

Simon T. Bailey’s session focused on “discovering your personal brilliance.” He asked the participants to turn to their partner and answer the following three questions:

  • Who do you want to be?
  • What does it sound like when you are thriving?
  • If you had 30 days to live, what would you do?

He emphasized that prioritizing mental wellness is often the key to unlocking personal brilliance. He encouraged the audience to take their M.E.D.S., which stands for meditate, exercise, diet, and sleep. All sound advice for school leaders.

Nora Burns built a career helping companies reimagine the employee experience. Going undercover as the candidate and the employee, Burns conducted extensive research, including 250-plus interviews (not as herself) and worked the front lines of eight organizations. These organizations did not realize that she was a former Fortune 200 executive. One of the significant takeaways from her session emphasizes that as a potential employer you have 24 to 48 hours to get back with your top candidates.

Kevin Clayton is senior vice president and head of social impact and equity for the Cleveland Cavaliers. His responsibilities include developing and leading the diversity, equity, and inclusion strategic plan for a variety of stakeholders in the Rock Entertainment Group.

Clayton stressed the importance of working together with all the major sports teams in Cleveland as well as community members to provide diverse, equitable, and inclusive facilities for Cleveland residents. Do you know that the Cleveland Cavaliers have a specialty room for fans with autism to watch the game? Talk about inclusion!

On a scale from one to 10, I would rate my first ASAE conference experience a 10! From the opening reception to the closing, which was a good old-fashioned block party with a band, no ASAE-related activity was left to chance. Certainly, it was a worthwhile experience that allowed me to expand my own professional learning.

I’m thankful to have a leader like NAESP Executive Director L. Earl Franks, Ed.D., CAE, who prioritized giving us this amazing professional learning opportunity, and I’m left inspired as we head into a new school year helping our leaders in education grow professionally.

Gracie Branch is associate executive director of Professional Learning at NAESP.