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Talent Development

Signs Your Business Doesn’t Know What – or Who – Matters Most

Are we measuring the wrong elements of success? Success in business is often defined by degrees, years of experience, hitting the bottom line, etc. Businesses that succeed today take measurements in how much they know about its audience, its team, and the future.

In the business world, what seems to matter the most are credentials – be it degrees, years of experience, or revenues. We like to measure and quantify success. But what if we’re measuring the wrong elements of success? What if what we need to know, and who we need to know, to succeed aren’t even on our radar?

Allow me to explain by sharing my day with you in three short stories, or lessons.

Lesson 1: Know Your Audience

In 2012, public school teachers spent $1.6 billion on classroom supplies. Today, teachers at 77% of public schools in America have posted a request for classroom supplies on the website, which has mobilized more than three million donors.

I had the opportunity to watch a keynote presented by the founder of, Charles Best, at the Healthcare Distribution Association’s annual conference. As compelling and inspiring as his speech about crowdfunding education was, I found the information Best shared about market research especially intriguing.

It turns out the DonorsChoose team knows its target market very well. So well, in fact, they have been able to pinpoint the following data:

● Women are more likely to give year-round to charitable causes, whereas men prefer to give on holidays;

● People who are Leos and Cancers are the least likely to donate; and

● People are considerably more likely to donate when their first name is used in the marketing materials.

I was enamored with the fact that DonorsChoose had taken the time to know its audience. Few organizations do this. The perfect contrast presented itself when a few hours after Best’s keynote, I moderated a panel discussion among a group of Millennial healthcare leaders. This brings me to lesson two.

Lesson 2: Know Your Team

While the panel fielded questions from the audience and me, a few key themes continually popped up. The Millennials on the panel felt, quite strongly, that their employers desperately needed to do three things:

● Update their technology;

● Invite young people to professional conferences; and

● Provide young people with opportunities to share their ideas and insights.

As one panelist candidly put it, outdated technology is impacting her organization’s ability to retain talent. That seemed like an exaggerated statement, but when I polled the audience, hands shot up throughout the room. Clearly, outdated technology is creating a huge hurdle in these workplaces.

Older generations in the room seemed surprised by this feedback, as well as the feedback that Millennials want the opportunity to attend professional conferences. As one executive told me after the panel adjourned, “I didn’t know Millennials wanted to attend these events -- but I guess I never thought to ask them or invite them.”

Overall, the Millennial panelists expressed concern that their organizations aren’t adequately planning for the future. When asked what question they would like to ask their CEOs, one panelist said he’d like to ask: “How are we evolving? Do you have a development plan for bringing in new talent and skills and preparing this company for the future?”

One Millennial said he worries about the next generation coming into the workforce, which has proven to be considerably more tech-savvy than the Millennial generation, which brings me to lesson three.

Lesson Three: Know the Future

An hour after moderating the panel discussion, the future was upon me. I attended the SXSW EDU Student Startup Competition, featuring central Texas high school students pitching their businesses in front of a live audience and panel of judges—Shark Tank style.

The contenders included a solid fragrance that turns liquid when touched; an online database of educational videos for students; an app which allows homeowners to rent their driveways as parking spots; a youth-led activism and education platform; and a peer-to-peer learning platform for tutoring refugees.

It was amazing to witness how students have used science and technology to turn their ideas into businesses; many which strive to solve some fairly significant problems. U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, attended the event and encouraged students to keep creating and building solutions for America’s future.

In the end, the activism app, Threading Twine, took the prize. Founded in 2017 and already boasting a global team, the platform was created by a 16-year-old student who describes herself as an activist for sexism, racism, rape culture, foster care, and more.

An hour after leaving SXSW, I had a media interview on the topic of Generation Z. The reporter kept prefacing his questions with phrases like, “It’s probably too early to tell or to know anything about this generation” (wrong) and asking questions about whether companies should take this generation seriously (yes!).

Alas, my day came full circle. Herein lies the problem: if you don’t take the time to know your audience, or to know your team, you certainly aren’t going to know anything about future generations.

As a result, the future will seem like some terrifying, impossible-to-reach destination. Even worse, you will likely dismiss younger generations as too immature and completely overlook the fact that 16-year-olds are starting global businesses to solve world problems.

We need to stop measuring success and progress by credentials and bottom lines. Instead we need to measure it by the people who are impacted and involved in our businesses. People are your organization’s greatest asset. So why does it seem like a novelty when organizations know their audiences and par-for-the-course when they fail to ask employees what they want? It’s time to change. It’s time to invest in truly getting to know your audience, team, and future.

XYZ University offers speakers, workshops, and consulting services to help your association engage with younger generations. Sladek, and our lineup of outstanding affiliate speakers and consultants, will educate and inspire you to act. Contact us to learn more.

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.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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