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Generation X
Generation Y
Generation Z

The Battle For Relevance: Stick To Your Mission And Engage The Next Generation Of Leaders

Your members are with you because you have fulfilled an expectation for them and can provide them with something valuable they feel paying membership is worth. It probably had something to do with your mission. At least it did. Are you happy with your new member recruitment? If not, you need to consider relevance.

Your members are with you because you have fulfilled an expectation for them and can provide them with something valuable they feel paying membership is worth. It probably had something to do with your mission. At least it did. Are you happy with your new member recruitment? If not, you need to consider relevance.


I was at the library checking out a book the other day wishing that I could just access that information online. How will libraries stay relevant in a digital age when people can access tons of information from their home computers and even mobile devices? Shelves of books are an old fashioned and time consuming way of finding information.

But libraries are embracing the digital age and the new way people come to find information. Reference librarians today need to be tech savvy; it’s a science, and I don’t mean learning how to use the Dewey Decimal System. Libraries are becoming a place to check out e-books and leading efforts to scan and digitize rare, unique and fragile collections, making them even more accessible. Libraries are staying true to their mission and finding great ways to remain relevant. Your association needs to do the same.


Take a look at your mission and consider how people look for that value today. Provide the value to your members in the way they want to access it now. You’ll never convince them the old way is better, you’ll just lose membership.

Has technology changed the way your association does business; has it changed the way your members expect to do business? Keep on the cutting edge. Don’t let your association be the last to adopt new technology that your members value. If you don’t even use their tools, how will you convince them you know how to add value to their lives?


Stop trying to play catch up and take time to strategize about future growth. Don’t wait until it’s too late; start planning for your future now. You need more than just a plan for the next few months, you need to know how you will achieve growth over the next 10 years. Have a marketing plan in place to do it. You need to know how you will reach out to new people and what they will be looking for so you can attract them.

The association competition is too stiff to just expect business as usual will keep your ranks filled. You need to find your focus and set goals. You need to know what your obstacles are and deal with them. You need to make the most of a marketing plan.


You need to engage your next generation of association leaders. Start cultivating your new leaders now, and they might not be the people who have been members the longest. Do you have junior members who show potential? Invest in their leadership skills now. How can you do that? Let’s go back to the library.

The American Library Association (ALA) has an emerging leaders program that allows new library workers an opportunity to learn about the organization and be involved in problem solving. Participants may be offered opportunities to serve on committees and other groups. The ALA is engaging their future leaders, and you need to do the same.

With a major demographic shift happening right now as Baby Boomers retire and Gen Y moves in to fill open positions, things are changing. If you want to keep your association moving forward on mission with strong leaders to keep you relevant, you need to develop a strategy now.

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.

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