“The Young Directors” sounds like a great pulp novel title, but for board members in their 30s (and even 20s), the experience is less glamorous than it is a challenge.
First, some numbers. While people between 20 and 40 now make up half the global workforce (says the World Economic Forum), the average age of S&P 500 board members is about 63 (and more than half of these boards have no members under 50). A recent SpencerStuart survey of 23 countries found global boardroom age averages from late 50s to early 60s.
While efforts to tip the scale in adding more women and minorities to boards are showing results, they still focus on the too-few older prospects who battled their way up the corporate ladder. Not only are these vets overboarded, but this also overlooks the younger, diverse pros who could make a boardroom difference. These candidates, and other younger directors, also bring, immediate, hands-on skills in the tech, data, marketing, finance and global changes that are reshaping your business.
So enough selling you on younger board members – how do you find them, how do you gain from their skills, and how do you help them fit in?
Begin by shaping your board infrastructure to encourage an age-diverse makeup. Do you have board age or tenure limits? While the former is common, the latter remain rare, yet can be a more effective tool for adding younger members. You may well want to keep an older, contributing board member, but term limits encourage overall turnover and refreshment.
Also, we’ve published many articles on board evaluation and use of a talent matrix (subscribers can search here). The point of these is less to weed out underperformers than to identify skills and connections your board should have going forward. Focus your evaluation on this talent shaping, and you’ll find your targets look younger and more diverse.
The next step is finding these younger talents. Task your nominating committee with this, and you’ll find that they’re all around you. Focus board search on skills and current talents rather than titles and years of experience to instantly widen your pool of prospects. Beyond the names your current directors (or search firms) may know there is a global roster of young CEO and executive networking groups. From the worldwide Young Presidents Organization chapters to your own community exec networking groups, there is endless potential.
If adding younger board talent prompted you to upgrade your board search processes (see above), the vetting and interview process should likewise be more professional. Since you’re seeking fresher skills and achievements, interviews should look more like those for a top talent hire, and less like chatting with old pals.
What specific, quantifiable “wins” has the candidate made in the areas you seek? Ask the young candidate to do some homework on hypothetical strategic and governance issues facing the company – what is her suggested course of action? This may be the young, mid-career prospect’s first board role – is he familiar with the legal duties of a director? Given these candidates’ current career demands, can you assure their ability to devote outside board time?
So the young talent has joined your board. Realize that both your current members, and especially the young director, go in feeling ill at ease. “Young directors will be inexperienced in boardroom work, and also less confident and feel out of place,” notes Talal Rafi, a consultant with the World Bank and World Economic Forum. How to cope? “I listened a lot at the first few meetings,” recalls Camila Bousquet. She’s founder of Bousquet Fashion in Ottawa, Canada, and a few years ago was named to an advisory board for Caisse Desjardins Rideau-Vision.
But Bousquet worked to bring herself up to speed, tapping several mentors, both within and without Desjardins to learn the business and board duties. One of these mentors had previous board experience, and put together a helpful “syllabus” of board information for her. Also, Bousquet was one of several other new members on the board, so before their sessions, “we’d meet to grab a coffee and review board material together.” Building this savvy before popping up with ideas and suggestions help establish your boardroom credibility.
Bousquet notes that one of the most overwhelming learning curves she faced as a young novice was “all the acronyms and abbreviations – there are a ton of these, and they’re not easy to find on the internet, as most are internal to the company.” Prep your young director with a tool we’ve often recommended in the past – a one-page cheat sheet defining all the acronyms, abbreviations and terms of art used in board materials.