Boardroom connection: How to get young directors to be more effective
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Boardroom connection: How to get young directors to be more effective

Boardroom connection: How to get young directors to be more effective

Young directors should be encouraged to find mentors within and outside of your own board

Gulf Business

“The Young Directors” sounds like a great OTT pulp series in Netflix or Amazon Prime, but for board members in their 30s (and even 20s), the experience is less glamorous and more challenging than imagined.

The UAE has several brilliant youngsters in both public and private sectors and their population will continue to grow in the new economy. Globally too, people between 20 and 40 now make up half the workforce, according to the World Economic Forum. However, 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 Spencer Stuart survey of 23 countries found the average global boardroom age ranges between late 50s to early 60s.

While the continued efforts to reduce the gender gap and increase diversity into the boardrooms are showing results, they still focus on the too-few older prospects who battled their way up the corporate ladder. Not only are these grey-hair folks “over-boarded” but also they are overlooking the younger, diverse professionals who could make significant difference in the unpredictable era of technology. These candidates, and other younger directors, also bring, immediate hands-on skills in the data, AI, marketing, finance and global changes that are reshaping every business.

Now that you know how young board members can contribute to the agility required for the new age economy, how do you find them, how do you gain from their skills, and how do you help them fit in?

Start with shaping your board infrastructure to encourage an age-diverse reshape. Do you have board age or tenure limits? While the former is common, the latter is rare, and 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 have written many columns on board evaluation and use of a talent matrix. Such processes will of course help weeding out underperformers but more critically help identifying skills and connections a board should have going forward. Focus your evaluation on this talent shaping, and you will find your targets look younger and more diverse.

The next step is finding the younger talent. Task your nominating committee with this, and you will find that they are 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 industry executive networking groups, there are endless potentials.

If adding younger board talent prompted you to upgrade your board search processes, the vetting and interview process should likewise be more professional. Since you are seeking new-age skills and achievements, interviews should look more like those for top talent hire, and less like chatting with old pals. What specific, quantifiable “wins” have 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 and what his/her suggested course of action is. 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 they devote time for outside board work?

Now that the young talent has been found and joined your board, what is next? Realise that both your current board members, and especially the young director, go in feeling ill at ease. The young directors will be inexperienced in boardroom work, and may be a bit out of place. How to cope? We recommend that they should listen a lot, and talk much less, in the first few meetings.

They should also be encouraged to find mentors within and outside of your own board to learn the business and board duties. We recall how one such mentor had put together a helpful “syllabus” of board information for such youngsters. It is also a good idea to have informal coffee chats with senior board members before the start of a board session (when physical meetings start again) and review board material together.

One of the most overwhelming learning curves, according to a young lady director, was that all those 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. Prepare your young director with a tool we have often recommended in the past – a one-page cheat sheet defining all the acronyms, abbreviations and terms of art used in your board materials.

Ralph is a global board advisor, author and publisher and Dr M Muneer is a co-founder and chief evangelist of the non-profit Medici Institute

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