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Signs your business doesn’t know what - or who - matters most

This guest blog post is by Sarah Sladek, CEO of XYZ University. The original post can be found here.

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 percent of public schools in America have posted a request for classroom supplies on the DonorsChoose.org website, which has mobilized more than three million donors.

I had the opportunity to watch a keynote presented by the founder of DonorsChoose.org, 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As one panelist candidly put it, outdated technology is impacting her organization’s ability to retain talent.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 that 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 that 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 car, 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.

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