Thought Leadership

How to Engage and Empower Your ZEOs

Young adults
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In 2023, the oldest Gen Zers will turn 26 years old. In the communications profession, they are now several years into their careers and earning supervisor, manager and leadership roles at agencies, corporations, brands and organizations of all sizes.

The youngest members of Gen Z turn 11 in 2023. For the next decade, tens of thousands of Gen Zers will graduate from college annually, begin their careers and take on roles at companies of all sizes — from local nonprofits to global corporations.

The key to successful transformation and innovation for PR professionals and marketers attempting to effectively engage Gen Z, and employers trying to recruit and retain Gen Z, is that they must all recognize and empower them as ZEOs.

I use ZEO to describe an organization’s entry-level executives who they hire following college graduation and an organization’s interns. If a company with 1,000 employees employs you at the turn of the next decade, then approximately 300 of those employees will have been born between 1997 and 2012. Those employees are your ZEOs, tech-savvy content creators, purpose-driven entrepreneurs, and change agents with the potential to transform and innovate your business.

The ZEO title can also apply to brand marketers who establish incubators and think tanks like those created by Target, Converse and the National Hockey League, where they connect and collaborate with ZEOs in developing new and innovative campaigns, content, products, services and community initiatives to engage Gen Z effectively.

ZEO is representative of Gen Z’s entrepreneurial mindset and approach. ZEO places a spotlight on Gen Z’s ability and influence to transform and innovate business, work, media and marketing. It captures their essence as digital natives and tech-savvy.

ZEO highlights Gen Z as content creators, symbolizing Gen Z’s prioritization of diversity, equity and inclusion as the most diverse and inclusive generation. ZEO also highlights how Gen Z is shifting the mental health conversation making it more acceptable to discuss.

Just as Gen Z is challenging and changing the status quo across various sectors, from employment to education and marketing to media, employers and marketers must do the same concerning how they engage their newest employees and customers — their ZEOs.

There needs to be a paradigm shift in mindset and approach from older generations in how they connect and collaborate with Gen Z. On the employee front, instead of continuing the traditional task-oriented approach with entry-level employees that has been historically taken for decades, pursue an entrepreneurial-oriented approach.

Instead of managing Gen Z employees, mentor them. Fully leverage your ZEO’s entrepreneurial mindset and challenge them to develop solutions that result in a more innovative, efficient and effective business model.

Review what Target has successfully done since 2018, when it launched the first ZEO-like marketing initiative, its first Target Incubator exclusively focused on members of Gen Z.

“To truly engage our next generation of guests, it’s not enough to create great brands,” said senior Target marketer Rick Gomez. “We need to cultivate communities and have real conversations. So, we’re using our brand power to connect with our young guests, amplify their voices and support their great ideas for the future.”

While Gomez does not use the term ZEO, that is who he is referring to when he highlights key Gen Z pillars such as engagement, community, conversations, amplification and great ideas for the future.

Looking toward 2030 and beyond

The age of the ZEO has arrived at the workplace and in marketing, and it will only expand and evolve through 2030 and beyond. Similar to how brands and employers such as Target have embraced, engaged and empowered this generation of entrepreneurs as employees and customers, employers and marketers should do the same to maximize their potential, purpose and profits in the years and decades ahead.

On the day I completed writing my new book, “ZEO: Introducing Gen Z, The New Generation Of Leaders,” I reviewed LinkedIn posts from my network of colleagues and professionals.

Fittingly, a post on leadership appeared from Patrice Sutherland. I first met Patrice in the summer of 1984 when we were stationed at Fort Monmouth, N.J., and attended the United States Military Academy Preparatory School. Patrice went to West Point, graduated from the United States Military Academy, and served in the first Gulf War. She concluded her LinkedIn post about building leaders for tomorrow by writing, “They are hiding in plain sight. Look for them and help them grow.”

Among those leaders who are hiding in plain sight are ZEOs. Look for them and help them grow.

Mark Beal is an assistant professor of professional practice, communication at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information. He has authored four Gen Z books, including the recently published “ZEO: Introducing Gen Z, The New Generation of Leaders.”

[Art credit: daniel]

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Mark Beal

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