How many generations are represented on your board? And what might be missing if your board skews heavily toward just one?
I first joined a board of directors ten years ago—and what a journey it has been. Since that time, I’ve served on five corporate boards and worked as a generational advisor to dozens more around the world. I’ve worked with boards of organizations ranging from companies with massive market caps to global private equity firms to third-generation family-owned businesses to numerous venture-backed startups. Being in so many different boardrooms—virtually and in-person—has helped me develop a new perspective on the factors that add value in board-level conversations, especially coming out of this pandemic.
The first board of directors I joined was a tiny startup with offices in Europe and Austin. I helped their CEO raise their first round of institutional money and introduced them to both of their primary channel partners. Watching the company grow from a bold vision in a PowerPoint presentation to a leader in their marketplace, serving clients in over 100 countries with more than 15,000,000 users, has been incredibly inspiring.
The first public company board I joined was a wholly different experience. But I remember that first board meeting just as vividly as the one at the startup. In both cases, the mission was the same: accelerate growth. Which we did. The public company ended up being acquired for $11 billion. In both the startup and public company, I was the youngest person on the board of directors and brought not only a different perspective but added an entirely new generation to the board, too.
Serving on and advising such a diverse variety of boards of directors—from technology and hospitality to retail and manufacturing—I’ve found one truth to be universal: Boards of directors need more generational diversity. They need it now more than ever as both Millennials and Gen Z are remaking workforces and shifting buying patterns. These generations represent not only the organization’s future but its present, too. This is particularly true as businesses across Texas work to come out of the pandemic with strength and innovation.
At some organizations, change is already taking place on boards and in boardroom conversations. I’ve seen boards move environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues to the forefront as well as making strides to increase long-overdue gender, racial, and ethnic diversity. However, a lot less attention has been paid to the value, benefits, and results that can be unlocked when a board of directors intentionally adds members from different generations.
Generational diversity in boards is particularly important now, as the largest generation of employees in the workforce are Millennials. Yet often at board meetings, I am the only Millennial in the room—and sometimes the only non-Baby Boomer! At the same time, Generation Z, the generation after Millennials, is now the key driver of consumer trends, technology adoption, and emerging workplace expectations. Yet neither generation is often invited to even present in a boardroom, let alone serve on company boards or provide their expert perspective. I believe this is a missed opportunity and should be fixed. Doing so benefits every generation, not just the emerging ones.
Adding generational diversity to a board helps to future-proof your business by naturally creating diversity of thought. After all, how can a company with a board comprised of only one generation best understand, adapt, and unlock the potential of other generations that are not represented? Adding different generations to boards brings a mix of different technology norms, generation-defining moments, and life stages. This is particularly important if a company employs multiple generations or sells and markets to them.
I’ve also found that it isn’t just established, legacy companies that can benefit from adding board members of different generations—startups can, too. The experience, relationships, and perspective gained when a venture-backed company has board members representing older, more experienced generations can be equally as valuable as when a 100-year-old company adds a board member who does not remember a time before Facebook. I’ve seen this firsthand in many companies—including ones where I am no longer the youngest person in the board meetings!
If strategically adding more generations to your boardroom will give you a natural advantage, where do you get started?
Start by looking beyond the averages that are often touted, such as the average age or tenure of board members, but instead ask: How many different generations are represented on the board currently? If there are not at least three different generations represented, I believe that the CEO, board, and shareholders should prioritize reaching that very attainable goal. Does it have to happen overnight? Of course not. But if it’s not a goal it won’t happen at all.
Boards still need to make sure that each member brings the expertise and contribution necessary to provide value that meets the organization’s, shareholders’, and stakeholders’ needs and vision for the future. But taking the first step is important. Expanding the candidate pool to include more generations also opens the door to increasing other types of diversity that add tremendous value at the board level—and sets a powerful example throughout the organization.
In this unprecedented period of time, boards of directors are navigating rapid technology changes, dramatic shifts in consumer behavior, and digitization of traditional businesses—whether they wanted to or not. Adding a multigenerational viewpoint brings new strengths, expertise, and relationships to boards of all types and, I believe, makes every other generation of board member more valuable, too. The next time you think about expanding your board of directors, or if a board seat opens up, consider looking outside of the generations already represented around the boardroom table. You might find exactly who you’re looking for and future-proof your company at the same time.