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Interview with an Expert Series: Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded one of the nation’s first generation-focused companies in 2002. 

  1. Tell us more about how you got involved with engaging generations?

    People often ask why I was inspired to build a business around helping organizations engage younger generations, and I guess it’s because early in my career, I was appointed to leadership roles, yet I was often the youngest person in the room. I observed and experienced first-hand how organizations were struggling to evolve, manage change, prepare for the future, and engage younger people.

    Specifically, when I was 28, I found myself standing in a room of 400 association executives attending a national conference, and suddenly realized I was likely the youngest people in the room. And a lightbulb went off. I started thinking about the association I was working for at the time – it’s board of directors were all over the age of 40, and so were it’s most active members. But why? Where were all the young people? Why were organizations struggling to engage them?

    This both intrigued and concerned me. I started meeting with people I knew who were executives of associations and non-profits and discovered that each and every one of them was struggling to engage younger members, leaders, and volunteers. Then I started meeting with the business executives, and their situation was exactly the same. Employee turnover among young professionals was on the rise and even recruiting had become a challenge.

    I was convinced this was a significant problem that would continue to challenge organizations worldwide, and I was equally inspired to create the solution. I believe an investment in future generations is the most valuable investment any organization could possibly make. Young professionals have valuable skills, perspective, and opportunity to offer. Moreover, they are the only succession plan, which makes them every organization’s greatest resource.

    I have been the youngest person in the room and I wanted to get more young people – not just in the room, but to the table – because I believe their engagement can make a real and significant difference.

  2. What are some of the most common questions you get about engaging different generations?

    The two questions that pop up the most often are: ‘Isn’t this just something they will outgrow?’ and ‘If we focus on engaging young people, won’t that alienate older people?’. Here’s my answer to each of those questions:

    Isn’t this just something they will outgrow?
    People don’t start becoming more engaged as they age. This is a common misperception. In comparison to older generations, today’s 30-something is time-strapped, struggling to balance changes to career and family, and I often hear leaders say that as soon as their children get older or their careers are more established, they will become more engaged. But that’s not how engagement works. Engaged employees and members are engaged because they fee like they belong and they truly care about the organization and the people or the industry that organization represents. In other words, there’s an emotional connection, and that connection is established through relationships. The approaches to engagement (relationship-building) have changed and are changing — but age has nothing to do with it. If we became more engaged as we aged, places like Google wouldn’t be capable of engaging young talent. Google engages young talent because they know how tap into their needs and interests and effectively build relationships with them.

    If we focus on engaging young people, won’t that alienate older people?
    This question always surprises me. Why would expanding and building your community cause the people already in that community to feel overlooked or threatened? If you want to build an exclusive, private club of specific people with specific backgrounds and interests, that’s fine. But don’t be surprised when people start retiring from your ‘club’ and the club suffers declines in revenue and participation. A ‘club’ is not a long-term or successful business model. Building a community inclusive of people of all ages guarantees that your organization has a succession plan, embraces opportunity and innovation, and is constantly evolving and growing. Vibrant, growing communities don’t have an ‘it’s us or them’ approach to doing anything. Ask yourself: are we growing a community or a club? As is true with every law of nature and business, your organization is either growing or it’s dying. It’s up to you which path you choose to take.

  3. What are the common mistakes you see people making?

    There’s a considerable amount of fear, grief, blame, and stereotyping going on. We’re now living in an era of disruption, and it’s forcing us out of the Industrial Era model that’s been prevalent for centuries. In the Industrial Era, predictability was the norm. Everything in the business world ran on a schedule, according to a process, and based on a hierarchy. Although we started to observe the shift to the Post-Industrial Era in the late 1990s, change has really accelerated in the last few years, making it very difficult for organizations to hold on to the past. This is creating a lot of misery. People are unhappy, uncomfortable, and as a result, job satisfaction and employee engagement has been at an all-time low for 15 years. We could resolve these situations if leaders spent more time thinking about and taking care of their workforces. We need to stop blaming young people for being difficult to work with, and instead recognize that change is happening and our Industrial Era methods aren’t working anymore. We need to be open to change, collaborating with one another, and focusing on team-building. Then, and only then, will we be able to create solutions, comfortably adapt to change, and observe greater success.

  4. Is there anything new or revolutionary with generation engagement that you’re seeing that people should be aware of?

    Generation Z is just starting to move into the workforce. Our research reveals that Zs are independent, entrepreneurial, extremely fast learners, and prefer to learn by doing. One key finding: Zs struggle to learn by listening. Yet, much of our education system, job training processes, and even how business meetings are conducted are entrenched in the ‘sit still and listen’ model. It’s clear that work and education models will need to be completely revamped in order to engage this next generation.

  5. What trends do you expect to see in the coming year(s)?

    The retirement wave is in full force. Long predicted, the full impact was delayed by the recession, but is now taking root, leaving many organizations vulnerable to huge losses in membership, employee, and consumer bases. We can expect the turnover to lead to a significant decline for some organizations, and we’ll see an increased demand for fast-track leadership development and training programs, as young people are called upon to quickly fill the void.

  6. What is the greatest value you / your clients / their members receive from doing a better job engaging different generation?

    Impact. Organizations that are able to engage younger generations successfully aren’t worried about the future. These organizations aren’t expecting a drop-off in revenues or participation due to retirements. They are strong, innovative, and relevant. And as a result, they are able to serve more people, further their mission, and make a positive impact to their industries and communities.

Sarah’s book is available via ASAE here.

Sarah is CEO of XYZ University. Learn more here.

 

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