How to Motivate Certification Candidates

Have you ever heard people talk about studying for and obtaining their Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation? You can tell by the intensity of their conversation that getting the CAE credential is a transformative experience. However, the path to the CAE credential involves a great deal of sacrifice—and many give up along the way.

The candidates for your association’s certification programs face the same challenges as CAE candidates:

  • Finding time and money to earn the required continuing education credits.
  • Dedicating mornings, nights, and weekends to reading books, understanding information, meeting with study groups, and preparing for the exam.

It’s an arduous and, often, expensive process to become certified. How can you motivate certification candidates and keep them on the credential path?

That is one of the many questions that will be discussed by the credentialing community next week, October 23 to 26, in New Orleans at the ICE Exchange—the Institute for Credentialing Excellence’s annual conference. WBT Systems will be exhibiting at the ICE Exchange and listening in on conversations about credentialing, but we thought we'd start one first here about motivating certification candidates.

3 intrinsic drivers that motivate certification candidates

When it comes to motivation, one of the first places we turn is a book by Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink provides scientific support for his assertion that the most effective motivation comes from inside—it’s intrinsic, not extrinsic. He said:

“The secret to high performance and satisfaction—at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.”

You can get a synopsis of the ideas presented in Drive in this short video.

Pink goes on to describe these three needs (and motivators) as:

  • Purpose
  • Mastery
  • Autonomy

These psychological motivators drive us all. If you’re familiar with the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow (I know the CAEs among you certainly are), you may have guessed by now that these motivators reside in the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualization.

Intrinsic motivators lead to much deeper commitment and engagement than extrinsic motivators, like money, badges, and points. Yes, extrinsic motivators can push people to complete short-term tasks, but they’re not enough to ensure lasting engagement.

motivate certification candidates - it's a long road


We’re most motivated when our work has purpose. It’s hard to muster up enthusiasm or commitment when you can’t connect what you’re doing to something meaningful. Help your certification candidates find that connection.

  • How will this course and/or certification program help them at work?
  • How will it help them serve their clients, customers, or members?
  • How will it help them move their organization forward toward its goals and mission?
  • How will it help them grow professionally and/or personally?

Throughout their path to certification, show them why the credential is worth pursuing. Use stories and testimonials to illustrate how their new knowledge is valuable and transformative. Provide evidence that the credential is valued by employers and esteemed by their peers.

Most importantly, don’t become complacent about the relevancy of your association’s credential. Ensure it has purpose by frequently assessing whether the required competencies have kept up with and keep ahead of employer needs.

“Adult learners want timely information through innovative, mobile, accessible and interactive formats,” said Tracy Petrillo, EdD, CAE, in an article she wrote for ICE Digest about a CAE value proposition study she conducted with the California Society of Association Executives (CalSAE). In the article she referred to an earlier study by researchers who said:

“Certifying bodies must strive continually to determine relevant standards and valid assessment procedures and not be content to see their procedures as a kind of initiation ritual, which requires effort and weeds out some applicants, but is little related to actual job performance.”

Certification candidates won’t find purpose or value in a credential that only focuses on the competencies needed up to now. They want to demonstrate their competency in the knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to succeed in the future.


A sense of progress is motivating. If you’ve ever learned a musical instrument, you know how satisfying it is to practice and, after numerous attempts, to master a tough piece. Your credential candidates want to feel that same sense of mastery as they make progress toward certification.

The results of Petrillo’s CalSAE study showed that CAEs found strong intrinsic value in the learning itself. “The highest rated intrinsic item was ‘indicates professional growth’ from 95 percent of total participants,” she said. “The qualitative results…identified how certification achievement provided both motivation and confidence for earners to better serve their organizations.”

Remind certification candidates that they’re in the midst of the most valuable part of the credential experience—the learning journey. Reiterate the difference between learning goals and performance goals.

  • A learning goal is: "I want to understand and apply the best (and next) practices of association management."
  • A performance goal is: "I want to pass the CAE exam."

Achieving a performance goal doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve achieved a learning goal. When candidates focus on learning goals, they’re more likely to retain knowledge long after passing the exam, persist when the going gets tough, and see the purpose of their endeavor.

Help certification candidates stick to their plan by acknowledging and rewarding their progress toward mastery (and certification). Petrillo said:

“Fear of failure and self-doubt can be reduced or eliminated when adult students achieve reward or recognition, in small steps, by earning a digital badge or a microcredential along the professional development pathway to a high-stakes final assessment or main certification exam.”

Seek out additional ways for candidates to demonstrate their mastery of new knowledge areas or domains. Ask them to contribute to association or foundation research projects, articles, and educational sessions.


In Drive, Pink said one of the secrets “to high performance and satisfaction at work is the deeply human need to direct our own lives”—the need for autonomy. We’re most motivated when we’re able to direct our careers and our work in the direction we want to take. Encourage members to take charge of their career and professional development by pursuing certification.

Find ways to give certification candidates some discretion over what they choose to read and study, the type of projects they work on, or the way their coursework is managed within the parameters of your certification requirements. Perhaps allow them to focus some of their certification credits on a particular topic that has meaning and purpose for them.

support and motivate certification candidates

Nurture a membership culture of learning

In her CalSAE study, Petrillo learned that the highest valued extrinsic item (89 percent) about the CAE credential was that it “promotes recognition from peers.”

When people see what other professionals in their network are doing, they’re more likely to do it themselves. They’ll model themselves on that peer behavior and conform to the social norm of, for example, lifelong learning and pursuit of credentials.

Keep in touch throughout the years with those who have earned a credential and find out how the experience changed their lives. Celebrate the successes of your credentialed members.

Always add designations to a credential holder’s name whether they’re members, staff, speakers, or authors. Give respect both to the credentials bestowed by your association and those bestowed by other associations.

Member employers must also demonstrate that they value certification. The American Institute of CPAs commissioned a study which found that environmental influences in the workplace “were the primary challenges for prospective CPAs on the path to licensure.” If employers provided encouragement and incentives, such as time off from work and employer-paid preparatory courses, their employees were more likely to pursue a CPA.

Encourage a membership culture of learning and certification. Ask member employers to host study sessions for their employees in certification programs. Dissuade them from holding these sessions at lunch—that’s the employee’s personal time. If the company values learning, they’ll schedule it during work hours. Share the stories of employers who nurture a culture of learning by allowing employees to pursue certification while “on the clock” or who subsidize certification expenses.

Provide a support system to motivate certification candidates

Even highly motivated candidates can run up against obstacles that threaten their ability or will to persevere. Have a support system in place that will boost their confidence and encourage them to stick with the program.

Require every new certification candidate to watch an orientation video or read orientation materials that explain what to expect and how to succeed. Match them up with mentors or coaches that escort a small group through the certification process and exam.

Help candidates find an in-person or virtual study group. Give them access to an online learning community where they can share resources, questions, advice, and laments with fellow candidates and program graduates. A sense of belonging to a community will help them get through the tough times.

Setbacks are inevitable on the road to mastery. Certification candidates must be resilient to overcome those setbacks and stay on the path to certification. You can help them stay resilient by checking in with them to find out what would help them along the way.

Check in with us at ICE Exchange if you have questions about how a learning management system, like our TopClass LMS, can help your association manage your certification programs and help you motivate certification candidates.

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