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Save the Associations

Undeniable Success: The positive impact of engaging young leaders

MCA of Chicago - Save The Associations Vol. 1

Although the Mechanical Contractors Association of Chicago (MCA of Chicago) has been around since 1888, sustaining its core purpose of managing labor relations between local mechanical contractors and the pipefitters local union, it has evolved many times to energize its constituents to become engaged members.

The Decline in Organic Growth

A few decades ago, the reality of time passing set in—the people representing the association’s member companies had aged.  The only young people one would see at a membership meeting were the children of a business owner.  

Add to this that many of the businesses were family-owned.  The chance for survival of family-owned businesses decreases dramatically with each generation. In fact, only 30 percent of family businesses make it to the second generation, 13 percent make it to the third, and 4 percent to the 4th.  Thus, at some point, those businesses would run out of properly equipped and interested family members to add to the business contact sheet.  

Organic growth wasn’t going to be enough to keep the MCA of Chicago relevant in the construction industry. It was time to evolve the organization from a social club to one that regularly made a difference in each member’s business.  

The association first began by providing educational opportunities to member companies.  The owner could choose to send his/her employees (and maybe him or herself) when relevant.  The initiative grew through the years into the Construction Education Institute®, which now offers partnership to its 80+ traditional and online classes to local construction organizations.  

More recently, however, the association realized that it needed to do more.  The classroom was attracting different people than those spotted at the membership meetings, but the organization needed to do more to give its business owners an easy way to provide more grooming opportunities for their rising stars, whether they were family or not.

Engaging the Younger Generations

The MCA of Chicago’s Emerging Leaders Section was launched in 2015 with the purpose of giving younger industry professionals the chance to enhance their capacity to work strongly and smartly. Participants discuss industry problems and devise potential solutions, share and adapt new technologies and ideas to revolutionize the state of the industry, and network with others in similar roles across different companies.

The Success of Emerging Leaders

Although the Emerging Leaders Section is less than 3 years old, the success of the program has been undeniable. The program has reinvigorated age-old members, increasing overall member engagement for many companies.  It has led to new events and conversations, among the younger generation as well as seasoned industry veterans.  Most importantly, it has evolved the face of the association:

Fresh Leadership

As of June 2018, 30 percent of the association’s board members are from the Emerging Leaders demographic (45 and under) and there is at least one Emerging Leader in each of the 20 plus leadership groups of the organization.  

An Increase in Diversity

While the program was designed to simply engage young professionals, it also helped the organization increase its racial, economic and gender diversity.

This increase fueled the sustainability of another affinity group, the Women of MCA of Chicago.  

Attention to the things that matter well beyond the bottom line 

While membership numbers are important, associations are ultimately about people. Associations exist to help people create and sustain better lives on a personal and professional level. 

When the MCA of Chicago asked for feedback about the program, one Emerging Leader wrote:  

“I didn’t take a perfect road to the Emerging Leaders—I’m sure at one point no one thought I would be leading anything. That’s what makes the Emerging Leaders so good, no matter what facet of life you came from, you are still accepted as an ‘Emerging Leader.’ Not once did I ever feel that I didn’t belong. I actually felt like I was a true leader and looking around at everyone else on the committee made me think to myself, I MADE IT! I am successful and my hard work is paying off. As confident as I am, the Emerging Leaders group has helped me be more confident and has made me want to help others even more than in the past. All of [the Emerging Leaders] are great leaders and you will do wonderful things as you already have in your career. All I ask as I make my exit, remember: we all come from different life styles, paths, and I’m not sure which path is right or wrong, but we all met on a path of an “Emerging Leader”. I can’t THANK YOU enough for letting me be a part of such a great organization. I’m ready to be a leader in my family life as well as a leader in my business.”

The Advice

Ready to launch your own initiative to engage younger generations?   

Consider framing your initiative as a pilot. This will allow you more flexibility to try new approaches and ideas, while still setting key timelines and metrics for success. It also allows your group the opportunity to rally the organization around something new while keeping association leadership comfortable by allowing them to pull the plug if it doesn’t meet expectations.

Consider the right individuals to act as leaders within the group. Selecting outgoing, engaged rising stars to serve on a five-member steering committee allowed the Emerging Leaders themselves to develop the goals and trajectory of the initiative, not association staff.

Consider using a broad definition for “young” (either by years experience and/or age).  For example, MCA of Chicago used “45 and under” as most of its leaders were well over that age when the group formed.

Consider strategically expanding your invite list beyond those eligible for traditional membership. For MCA of Chicago, expanding to include industry vendors for many gatherings was a smart choice. Vendor representatives were diverse, tended to be artful conversationalists, and held strong relationships with a different mix of companies than the association had developed. 

Looking for more advice and inspiration like this? Stay tuned because this is just our first installment of the Save the Associations campaign. All summer long we will be sharing inspiring stories of associations that are doing something exceptional to 'save' their association and their industry from an untimely demise.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

XYZ University - Save the Associations Blog Series

All summer long XYZ University will be sharing inspiring stories of associations that are doing something exceptional to 'save' their association and their industry from an untimely demise. XYZ U exists to help organizations engage younger generations of members, talent, and marketshare. We offer unparalleled generational expertise, coupled with an in-depth knowledge of future economic, membership, and marketing trends, to advise clients on the best strategies for long-term growth, relevance, and market engagement.

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