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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Tomolonius: That’s right. But I also think it is important to offer a different perspective and not hold back because you’re thinking, “This person has been CEO of a public company for decades, and I have not.”

Huskins: Clearly, the point of having you there as a next-gen director is to express your opinion. But the confidence issue and the awareness of everybody’s experience is real.

Schmelkin: A younger generation director is brought on for that very reason—to offer a different perspective in as many appropriate ways as he or she can. Different isn’t always better, but better is always different. You’re being brought on for that diversity. Early on you may hear things like, “Traditionally, our customers do this” or “You don’t understand.” But that should quickly end because after you serve on the board for a few years, you’re no longer that younger director. Your age may make you younger, but when you’re on a board for three or four, five years, you’re becoming a tenured director. At that point you can still be expected to offer the complete diversity of thought based on your background, but you don’t have to play the young kid card anymore. You’re part of the culture and function of the board.

Huskins: Your comment also underscores that when a person is being interviewed for a board, it’s a two-way interview. Being put on a board as a token is a very uncomfortable place to be. So when interviewing for a board, it would be a good idea to have the question, “Will I be taken seriously even though I may be 20 years younger?” in your mind.

Tomolonius: If you feel like you’re running at a wall in the interview process, you can expect to continue running at that same wall for however long you stay on that board. And who wants to be in a position where you can’t actually affect change? The other thing I would say is that there’s an overarching change to how boards are perceived and how they’re expected to act. You see that in the Larry Fink letter and the expectations of what corporate governance really means. I think a board that is unwilling to change is, dare I say, one that has to worry about dying, too. That isn’t going to work over the medium to long term, especially not when you have investors becoming much more engaged in the corporate governance process and expecting a lot more from boards.


SARAH Tomolonius, AGE 38

Board Member, Quest Resource Holding Corp.; iMentor’s Young Executive Board

Tomolonius is vice president of marketing and investor relations at Arlon Group and co-founded the Sustainability Investment Leadership Conference. She also serves on the executive council of the alumni council at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and as chair of the sustainability committee of the New York Hedge Fund Roundtable.


 

CBM: How much longer do you see yourself being next-gen board members versus just board members—and how will you know when you’ve made that jump?

Schmelkin: The average age of board members today is 63, so the obvious answer might be when you tip over that median. But I think you’re no longer a next-gen board member when you are taking leadership roles on your board. I don’t think it’s an age thing. It’s when you reach that level of experience and leadership on the board.

Huskins: In Silicon Valley where I’m headquartered, there are amazing companies doing extraordinary things inspired, founded and run by people who are very young. And that’s great—until it isn’t. One of the places we started in this conversation was the benefit of diversity. For a lot of boards, just by showing up we create cognitive diversity in the boardroom. And when you think about some of the spectacular leaps some companies have taken, followed by even more spectacular failures, there’s always this comment, “Where was the experience? Where were the people with pattern recognition around hypergrowth and what it takes to sustain that growth?” My hope is part of the benefit of next-gen board members is awareness of the energy you get from founders who are young and out there going fast, coupled with some experience because we’re mid-career. We have seen the benefit of being able to have those two things, that some natural tension would be very important for success going forward for companies.

Tomolonius: My hope is that 30, 40 years from now, whatever “next-gen” this is has developed the appropriate sort of processes and governance and ideas about how to be a board member that percolate through so that we’re not sitting here 30 or 40 years from now and saying, “Well, we had our careers and they were great, and now we’re retired and run a number of boards.” And there’s this next-gen that’s taking over and bringing all these new ideas to us. I think that that would be a bad outcome.

Read more: More Women Directors In 2018 Shows Diversity On The Rise


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