As change hurtles towards the way we operate and do business – from AI advancement to remote working, superseding known convention at warp speed – perhaps the answers lie in the exuberance of youth? In attracting and retaining the understanding that resides in young talent, a meaningful, visible and preferably rapid pathway to a seat on the Board will inject younger perspectives and understanding into the boardroom, that could deliver the digital knowhow, diverse outlooks and innovative thinking that gains the important competitive edge.
All businesses set out to embrace modernity – along with the real or imagined benefits of digital technology – but only a few have thought to accelerate young people into the boardroom. Surely it makes sense to integrate the skills, outlook and expertise of youth into essential technology decision-making and to mentor and guide older executives into the possible impacts of changes upon strategy? It’s the proverbial win-win as it harnesses ambition, commitment and motivation, as well as fosters collaboration on a reciprocal basis, between generations. But let’s take a sceptical step back from this bright new future of work, to assess the current environment, with regards to talent acquisition and deployment. The increased need for meaningful engagement requires employers to reassess how they motivate, retain and find talent. Employees have a bigger voice and vote with their feet and the fluidity of the remote working, digital world is changing the employer/employee relationship, contractually and psychologically. So, a reassessment of growth opportunities within the company hierarchy is timely and pertinent.
Currently, the reality is that business decision-makers are over 50 and many are at retirement age and while having this calibre of knowledge and expertise is stalwart and reliable, viewed from the perspective of eager young talent, old school ‘grey hairs’ are the boardroom equivalent of bed-blockers, a drag on innovation, staff development and talent retention. So surely, a diversely aged Board represents a tremendous opportunity, by combining experience with exuberance. But the reasons that so few Boards are age diverse is the ongoing fixation with recruitment conformity – the old school obsession of filling the ranks with people that “look, talk and think like us” – continues to obstruct the non-executive director staffing choices in executive suites. By continuing with the likeminded, tried-and-tested type of appointments, we create lowwattage churn in the Board, talent comes into the organisation and leaves, before ever having a post in which they can influence at a strategic, decisionmaking level. But there is now a growing body of evidence that shows that the Boards that operate most effectively are the ones that are most diverse and the result is diversity-of-thought, better decision-making and an improved outcome for all. However, for too long, our boardrooms and management committees have overwhelmingly been filled with people in the autumn of their careers, who often look largely the same, but also have a tendency towards treating the position as a sinecure, rather than the lifelong learning opportunity it is. To coin a phrase, they are still, despite some improvements, largely male, pale and stale.
Blame for the present situation cannot just be laid at the door of company boards. Reports indicate that while many institutions recognise the need for a broader base of talent, many continue to struggle to find willing recruits. Recruitment consultancies report returning to the same people, to fish from the same pool, time and again. The reason for this is because no one else is putting themselves forward, but this isn’t a lack of ambition – nor indeed an indicator of talent available – despite the muchreported so-called skills deficit, it’s more a case of reality in which they cannot envisage themselves in the boardroom, due to age and lack of experience. On both sides of the Atlantic, though there are exceptions, most NED positions on almost any board are people aged over 40 and often, fifty and sixty plus. It isn’t ageism to highlight this – and equally, it is not a fact of life that cannot be contested – this is a generational chance to make serious change in the makeup, outlook and diversity of our boardrooms. It’s also a great way to recruit, motivate and retain talent and bring much-needed new perspectives into play. Organically too, rather than just diversity as a tick-box exercise, this is a dynamic as well as organic DEI action plan.
That we urgently need to change the status quo is patently obvious – there are so many stories of leadership shortfalls in the press – that it’s clear boardrooms are crying out for diverse, committed and engaged talent. Not just big corporates either, but also positions on C-suites that are mainly outside the corporate arena – health trusts, charities, sporting bodies, universities or community groups – all organisations are under more pressure than ever before to perform well, often with considerably less money to do so. After years of the pandemic, austerity and cuts in public services, many UK organisations are crumbling under the strain. If anything can be done to resolve this and help them meet future challenges, we all have a responsibility to do all we can to help to find the talent to make the change. Wise talent recruitment looks at the long-term financial return as much as the short-term financial costs of talent recruitment, so should really focus upon how to attract, leverage and apply the skills, talents, time and enthusiasms of 25-to-45/50-year-olds. These are people in the prime of their careers and with contemporary expertise to gain competitive advantage.
Rather than a fancy theory that is hard to put into practice, in terms of re-conceptualising what talent is and how to enthuse it, there cannot be many ways of achieving real mutual advantage than fast-tracking into non-executive director positions. Though specifics can and will vary from business to business and sector to sector, it could be argued that companies and institutions that support such initiatives would gain serious competitive advantage and boost talent attraction and retention into the bargain. It’s also where the talent recruitment tyre actually hits the environmental, social, corporate governance and corporate social responsibility road surfaces. But even now in these so-called enlightened times, I can still see older leadership Board stalwarts dismissing the idea of fast-tracking young people into decision-making positions, for fear of upsetting the applecart and challenging the old ways. But I would argue that those with a tin ear to the change imperative need to take a long hard look in the mirror. Also, in light of this much-reported and obsessed over skills drought, we have to ask, what is talent telling us? The pandemic turned a sharp and unremitting light into the cobwebs of corporate operation and behaviour and we now need to take a reality check. The demand for impartial input is greater than ever before. It coincides with a moment in history where there is a strong public desire to be more personally responsible and to change things for the better. The very public demonstrations against everything – from climate change, to flaws in Government policy, to protests against the fall-out from austerity – prove that more people than ever want to see tangible change. Giving previously excluded people – for reasons of age, background and gender – a genuine chance of a more rapid career path towards a seat on the Board, is truly powerful. This is the time and opportunity to grow the next generation boardroom, rather than buy it in.
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Gerry Brown is the author of Making a Difference: Leadership, Change and Giving Back the Independent Director Way. Published by De Gruyter