Sarah Sladek is an author, speaker, strategist, and futurist. She is an experienced marketing and media professional who started researching demographic shifts in 2000. Sarah is the CEO and Founder of XYZ University which goal is to help organizations identify their competitive advantage, embrace change, bridge gaps, increase ROI, and remain relevant to future generations.

Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?

I grew up in the state of Iowa, in a beautiful old brick home. There was a huge yard with many flowers and trees and my father built a treehouse for me. I spent my days using my imagination, writing stories in my head. As I grew older, I closely followed pop culture, fashion, and music trends. I was already on the path to becoming a writer and futurist. Also, my brother is 15 years older, and at an early age, I realized the generational differences between us. My business, research, and books were all inspired by this realization and childhood experience.

What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?

Report cards aren’t an indicator of future success. While I had decent grades, I didn’t get straight As, and I didn’t always follow directions. When a piano teacher said I tended to “make up the music” rather than follow the notes, I took it as a compliment – and then I realized she meant it as a criticism. My high school guidance counselor told me I should consider not attending college because I wasn’t a “serious” student. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there are many skillsets which school systems aren’t designed to recognize or measure. I didn’t realize creativity and independence were assets that would later serve me well in authoring books, presenting speeches, and launching businesses. If I had listened to the criticism and not forged ahead, my career would be in a very different place right now.

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

I find there’s a considerable number of organizations where the executives work in silos. The executives talk among themselves and make assumptions about what they think the people they lead need and want. I’m a huge proponent of destroying these models of hierarchy. Work works better when organizations practice cognitive diversity, bringing people of different experiences and skill levels to work on projects and make decisions collaboratively.

Some leaders believe transitioning to cognitively diverse work environments and making room for young or inexperienced professionals will limit the capabilities and potential of the elders and most experienced professionals. This tug-of-war for power must stop. Globally, we’re observing massive turnover and ever-widening skills gaps. Work isn’t working anymore, and it’s largely because many leaders are still managing their organizations in the exact same way leaders were managing their organizations 100 years ago.

Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?

I planned a national conference — the first conference in the U.S. focused on addressing the retirement wave and widening skills gaps in the workforce and how to bridge them. I booked speakers from DreamWorks Animation, Best Buy, Forbes, and many other notable companies. The event featured an awards program and many organizations applied, and the event gleaned widespread media coverage.

From the outside, everything looked awesome, but the event took place just as the Great Recession hit, and the conference lost a significant amount of money. I had financed much of the conference, expecting to get a return on my investment. When the bottom fell out of everything, I was left holding the bag. That financial loss impacted my business and my family and me personally. It was a time of real hardship, worry, and stress.

From that experience, I learned the importance of working within your means. It’s good to dream big and push your comfort zone, but you must be careful not to get too far over your head. Whatever you promise, you need to be certain you can deliver, and you need to prepare for the unexpected.

Initially, the feelings of failure overwhelmed me. It took someone reminding me to focus on everything I accomplished as a result of hosting the event, and not just what I lost. He was right. We all make mistakes, and sometimes things don’t work out as planned. But you have to get back up, dust yourself off, and keep going. Perseverance and positivity are key to success.

What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?

Writing books. For me, book writing has opened many doors. It’s fueled my speaking career, consulting practice, and publicity efforts.

What is your morning routine?

I’m usually up and out the door by 6:30. A brisk two-mile walk energizes me and helps me mentally prepare for the day.

What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?

Spending less time on my phone. What you feed your brain matters! I’m rediscovering hobbies and interests and reading more books. I feel considerably more focused and positive since limiting the amount of time spent scrolling social media.

What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?

I block my time. For example, Mondays and Fridays are reserved for office work, and Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are when I book my meetings. I also set a big three each day –three priority tasks I complete prior to doing anything else. And it’s a work in progress, but I’m also trying to check email just three times a day.

What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve read that book a few times now. I admire the author’s willingness to write about a vulnerable, difficult time in her life, and her journey to find contentment. For me, reading that book is food for the soul.

Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?

One is from the Bible. Acts 13:36 says David served God’s purpose in his own generation. In my work as a futurist, studying demographic, leadership, and economic change, I think of that phrase often because it speaks to the fact that change is a constant. (Even then, younger generations were behaving differently than their elders!) This passage is an excellent reminder that our organizations and communities and management practices must keep pace with change to remain relevant to each new generation.

The second is, quite simply, ‘Are you having fun?’. A mentor of mine will often ask this question. He says he asks this question of leaders because it’s so easy for them to lose sight of what really matters. If you’re true to yourself and stay focused on using your talents, work is rewarding, purposeful, and enjoyable.