Q&A With XYZ University CEO and founder Sarah Sladek

A conversation with XYZ University CEO & Founder Sarah Sladek

XYZ University CEO and founder Sarah Sladek

(Pictured) XYZ University CEO and founder Sarah Sladek

Associations have undergone sea changes in recent years, due in part to a new workforce culture, rapidly changing technology and a shift in demographics. More than ever, organizations should be thinking about strategic ways to engage and retain their employees, which is the topic of a new book released by the American Society of Association Executives, Talent Generation: How Visionary Organizations Are Redefining Work and Achieving Greater Success. Author Sarah Sladek, CEO and founder of XYZ University, spoke with M&C about what has led to a workforce crisis, why associations are best suited to solve it and how they can get started.

You begin your book by talking about a workforce crisis. Can you elaborate on what you mean?
I have worked with associations for quite some time, and one thing that I keep hearing about is a tremendous decline in membership. There has been a history of membership, workforce or employee-engagement decline, so it is my strong belief that we are moving into this area of workforce crisis. We have the lowest productivity, lowest job satisfaction and the highest employee turnover in history right now. That's not getting a lot of attention, and it's certainly not a priority for many organizations. But according to a study by Gallup, turnover in the workforce is costing companies an estimated $30.5 billion a year, which is something that makes my stomach turn. This is a big deal.  

What led to this workforce crisis?
In a nutshell, we have moved from an industrial era, which runs on process, structures and hierarchies, to a new post-industrial era, which is characterized by disruption, innovation, instant gratification, globalization and mobility. We're now living in a talent-driven economy fueled by ideas.

This shift happened a while ago, but we're just beginning to accept it. As part of this phenomenon, baby boomers have been retiring en masse, and tech has been accelerating and changing -- but organizations haven't take it seriously in terms of how it will change the industry. Now we're starting to actually lose money, and we're seeing it hit the bottom line in creating that crisis situation.

You say that membership associations are ideally suited to address this crisis. Why is that?
At XYZ University, we research what is going on in the workforce in addition to what is going on in associations, and they are clearly related. I believe that associations are best suited to solve this problem because unlike any other entities out there, associations represent and have a voice not only in government, but they're very powerful when it comes to influencing the future of member companies and industries. They have the potential to go in and make changes.

At the same time, the way associations are governed makes it difficult to initiate major changes. How can they do things differently?
It's true that many associations have retained some elements of industrial-era thinking -- they tend to be steeped in hierarchy and profitability. But there are associations that have been doing everything right, if you will. Through our research, we've found that associations that are successful at engaging young talent do two things exceptionally well. The first is prioritizing people -- building a community, listening and being in dialogue with people. Such organizations get back to why they formed in the first place, which was to represent a community, make industries better and help their member companies. So associations should start having a lot of dialogue with members, especially younger members. Social movements and trends have always started with youth -- they are your eyes and ears on what's to come. When you're not talking with them, you risk becoming irrelevant.

Secondly, associations that are successful are very future-focused. I don't mean thinking just a couple of years out, but thinking 10 years out or even more. Because change is happening so quickly, that focus on the future is more important than ever before.

My advice for associations is to start visioning your industry and community 10 years out and asking yourself those tough questions: Are we on the right path to remain relevant? Are we keeping pace with the change that our industry is facing and will face? And are we thinking a generation ahead, or are we a generation behind? Examine whether you have processes and tradition simply for the sake of it, and whether they're hindering your ability to serve.

That sounds simple enough. Why aren't associations doing it?
Part of it is scientific. After a certain age, it's been proven that your brain shifts into social-conservation mode. It is true that the older we get, the more resistant we are to change. We like to keep things the way they are or the way we remember them in the "good old days."

This applies to leaders of associations as well as anyone else. Another reason is ego. If you can imagine someone saying, "I spent 20 years working my way up the ladder and gaining experience so that I could be promoted to CEO, and you're saying someone who's 25 should be CEO because they're more visionary than I am?" Older leaders are more apt to say they have nothing to learn from younger people, they've paid their dues. So there's a little bit of ego that comes into play.

Lastly, it's simply the fact that we've lived through the most disruptive decade in history. We are not accustomed to change moving at such a high speed. It's unprecedented, and we're struggling to figure out how to manage this. So it's a variety of things coming into play that just forces people to freeze, and that's the last thing we should be doing right now.

Millennials have a reputation in some circles of being unmotivated, lazy and disloyal employees. Why are they important to this conversation? 
Millennials are the first generation of this post-industrial era. They've been raised in an era where technology is evolving and becoming very prevalent. They've come of age during the worst recession our country has seen in the past 70 years. So we see these conflicts of the industrial age and the postindustrial age play out.

Older generations are apt to say that Millennials are spoiled, entitled and difficult to work with, and there is some truth to that, generally. But Millennials are the personification of change into this new era. It's not so much personality or character flaws, it's simply that they think differently, and their values have been shaped differently. They're the most debt-ridden generation in history, the most diverse generation in history and so on. They resemble the magnitude of change.

What advice do you have for younger leaders?
We forget that we are all in this boat together. The best thing that can happen is for younger people, especially younger visionary leaders, to work alongside experienced visionary leaders. As I'm calling upon experienced leaders to build relationships with younger people, I think the same is equally important for young people. I've seen younger leaders who are very arrogant in their approach, just as I've seen experienced leaders do the same.

As I mentioned, ego is one of the things getting in the way. We have to put egos aside and allow different skill sets to come together. Every generation has something to learn and something to teach.