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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CBM: Spencer Stuart’s 2017 board index showed that last year, almost half of all new S&P 500 directors were first-time directors—a big jump from the 32 percent the year before. We hear a lot about the need to rethink onboarding in terms of covering all the various buckets: company, culture, confidence, compensation. What can boards do to facilitate that?

Huskins: At the risk of diving into the weeds, when I talk to people I know who are joining boards, I proactively say, “By the way, doing your taxes online is not going to work anymore. You’ll need to talk to somebody.” Here’s what you need to look for regarding your personal liability. If you haven’t been in the boardroom before, these things wouldn’t even occur to you. This generation of directors can do everyone a solid by telling them things that may not feel very high level but matter in your day-to-day life.

Schmelkin: At every board meeting, there’s a general cadence of who’s going to speak and the way it goes around the room. One of the things the chair of my board did early on when there was a critical decision was to go around the room and get everyone’s opinion. It can feel forced, it can feel repetitive, but it actually opens up a door for you to jump in and offer an opinion on something. It’s an effective technique that works not only for a next-gen director but also a more pensive and quieter director who can’t always find an opening to share an opinion. That’s a confidence-building exercise that boards can adapt to their culture, which spills over to helping people.

CBM: What advice would you offer to an aspiring young director or new director? What do you wish you knew or had done to help yourself get acclimated?


Board Member, Essendant

Alex Schmelkin is chief revenue and marketing officer of Unqork, a fulfillment platform for financial services and insurance, and founder and former CEO of customer experience agency Cake & Arrow. Schmelkin chairs the technology advisory committee and serves on the compensation and audit committees at Essendant, a Fortune 500 wholesale distributor of technology and office products.

Schmelkin: Certainly, meeting with management, that’s obvious. Also, getting to customers earlier than maybe you’re even comfortable doing. As a representative and steward of the company, you have to represent the business and what it believes in when you’re in front of a customer. But you will learn so quickly what the business is really all about. You’ll also find that the customer may be more willing to open up to you as a younger director and not someone that they’ve seen on the board for so many years. I found that particularly rewarding, and I wish I had done it sooner.

Tomolonius: The sooner you can get on a committee, the better in terms of really understanding board functionality.

Huskins: I second the motion on the committee issue. A lot of boards encourage or at least allow board members to observe committees, which is a really good thing to do as you’re trying to figure out what’s going on. I would also love to jump in the way-back machine and tell first- and second-year board members that incumbent board members are very willing to tell you about the lore of the company and the history of the company. In order for me to be effective as a new board member, it’s useful to understand that while the things that we see in front of us are sometimes the result of happenstance, they’re often due to deliberate thought. Having a better understanding of the history of the company earlier would have made me more effective sooner.


CBM: Are we overplaying the issue of age? Or is it still intimidating when the next oldest person in the room is 24 years older than you?

Huskins: I would be concerned about the self-awareness of any next-gen director who goes into a boardroom where everybody has at least 25 years more experience if he or she didn’t at least pause before making a comment. That doesn’t mean that a younger director shouldn’t speak, but it’s OK to have an awareness of the distance between yourself in your mid-30s or mid-40s versus somebody who has been in the business world doing many different things successfully [for decades].

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