The Next-Gen Director Dilemma

Board refreshment may be a red-hot topic, but few boards actually have a gen-xer—or millennial—at the table. We talked to three directors under the age of 50 about the realities of boardroom generational diversity.
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THE LURE OF THE YOUNG

CBM: Three years ago, there was the sense that boards wanted to bring on a younger member to check the box on certain skill sets—digital marketing, cybersecurity or whatever—that they thought they needed. Which skill sets do each of you feel you’re bringing to the board?

Tomolonius: Digital transformation and other buzzwords that are common now were a marvelous way to raise awareness about the need for generational diversity in the boardroom. But I’m always concerned that a new board member, particularly one from the younger generation, not be pigeonholed as “the digital director,” as if that person’s value is very narrow. It’s a disservice to the board. It’s a disservice to that individual. It’s also, in my view, not an appropriate use of a board seat, which is a valuable resource for the company. Certainly, as a younger generation board member, I wouldn’t want my value to be limited to being able to reset the Wi-Fi. That would not be appropriate, and it’s also deeply unfair. There are a lot of mid-career directors who bring interesting business experience to the boardroom.

Schmelkin: [Directors are] starting in the right place when they say, “We want to bring on a younger generation director,” even if they haven’t fully defined what that means. The education boards have to go through is looking at what that really means. What are the skills someone has that can benefit the board, and then start breaking that down into the buckets of new economy–type skills that they may not have on the board right now. They’ll quickly learn that it spans a full spectrum, from new ways of looking at traditional things like finance to customer centricity.


PRIYA HUSKINS, AGE 46

Board Member, Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.; Realty Income Corp.; QBIS Insurance Solutions

Priya Cherian Huskins is a partner at Woodruff-Sawyer & Co. who counsels clients on D&O insurance and corporate governance matters. She chairs Realty Income’s compensation committee and serves on the technology risk committee and the corporate governance and nominating committee.


 

Tomolonius: One of the best things a board can do is move beyond tokenism in bringing someone in from a younger generation to really integrate all their thoughts, concerns and suggestions about the business in a way that is authentic and meaningful. The sheer diversity of backgrounds is beneficial to the board. Fundamentally, the next generation or new generation brings diversity of mind, diversity of thought and diversity of experience.

Huskins: At the same time, there have been incidents lately that have caused me to realize that the knowledge the generation in this room takes for granted is not as widely dispersed as I thought. I’m specifically thinking of the congressional hearing on Facebook. It is concerning that there were basic questions about the business model of something so immense. After seeing that, there is something to be said for having awareness of things this generation takes very naturally but are more transformative than we might realize.

Tomolonius: The other thing you point out is the velocity of reputational risk because of social media and how quickly information can get disseminated. A single tweet can make a large company have to pivot and respond immediately in a way that before it never had to. A board that understands that will make for a better company.

INTO THE BOARDROOM

CBM: After you joined the board, how did the experience match up with what you anticipated?

Huskins: I had a leg up on some of the blocking and tackling of board work because of my business background and because I’m a corporate securities attorney by training. What was critical for me was that the board was united in its desire to bring me in and make sure that I understood its culture. We didn’t have a formal mentorship model, but we did have an entire group of people reaching out to me, which was obviously easier than me trying to extract information. I don’t think it would work as well if the full board wasn’t behind the idea of bringing on a new board member from a different generation.

Schmelkin: Orientation is different for someone who hasn’t served on a board previously. Personally, I wasn’t completely familiar with the compulsory committees and what they did. So boards should sometimes take a half-step back and actually go through the important functions of these committees. Something else I benefited from was a mentorship model that’s not often found on boards. If you can assign a younger generation board member a mentor who will say, “I’m going to take care of this person for the next year, help them navigate the personalities on the board and understand not just the business we’re in, but even the cadence of how we get through things.” That’s a successful way to bring someone new on.

Tomolonius: I second the idea of mentorship. The board had an open-door policy, so from the moment I guest interviewed with all of the board, I felt I had the ability to call [directors] up or email them if I had questions, and that was how the process went.


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