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Generation X

Board Of Directors: Here To Stay Or Hopelessly Passé?

I met a colleague yesterday over coffee who specializes in board governance. We shared our experiences working with boards of directors, and both of us (as Xers) agreed the board concept has little to no appeal to our generation and the generation that follows.

I met a colleague yesterday over coffee who specializes in board governance. We shared our experiences working with boards of directors, and both of us (as Xers) agreed the board concept has little to no appeal to our generation and the generation that follows. Most – if not all – of our clients are experiencing great difficulty in recruiting and retaining young professionals to board roles. Which leads me to wonder: what will happen to boards of directors once the Baby Boomers retire?Throughout the nineteenth century and before, there are examples of corporations, non-profits, and associations utilizing boards of directors. Yet, despite the passage of time the concept of the board of directors hasn’t evolved one iota. The concept remains much the same as it did more than 100 years ago.Needless to say, Xers and Ys find a number of faults with the board concept and would rather pull their hair out than serve a single term on a board. As my colleague put it, the Xers that do get involved in the process are "there just long enough to realize they don’t need this in their lives and quickly leave".Here are two characteristics of boards that really turn Xers and Ys off:

  • Lack of trustAs a rule, Xers and Ys don’t trust people they don’t have relationships with, largely due to the social events that took place during their youth: high divorce rates, terrorism, massive layoffs in corporate America, and business and political leaders failing to deliver on their promises.Boards of directors have a bad reputation as entities consumed with negativity, distrust, political undermining, and people who use the board more as a resume-booster than a service opportunity. In a number of corporate scandals during the 1990s, one notable feature revealed in subsequent investigations was that boards were not aware of the activities of the managers that they hired or the true financial state of the corporation.I conduct surveys of younger professionals, and they often describe their organization’s board of directors as cliques or people with a dishonorable regard for service.In short, they don’t trust their organization’s leaders and have no interest in joining them.
  • Unreasonable expectationsWhile the Baby Boomers thrive in commitment, Xers and Ys resist it. Most board members are required to attend long or numerous meetings and engage in lengthy discussions about topics that aren’t relevant or meaningful.I recently worked with an association that allows board members to serve up to 11 years and requires them to attend meetings that are four days long. Likewise, my colleague is working with an association’s board that has been engaged in debates about what to serve on the vegetarian menu at the conference.It’s no surprise these organizations can’t get Xers and Ys to step up to the plate!Xers and Ys want the time they spend away from their careers or families to be filled with relevance, meaning, and purpose. They want to make decisions and make change and know their efforts are making a difference. They want a foreseeable beginning and end to their work, and they expect recognition and rewards for their contributions.

What does all this mean for the future of corporations, non-profits, associations, and their boards of directors?I think it means change. Significant change in what a board does, how it operates, its purpose, and its outcomes.A lot has happened in the past 100 years. Most everything that was in existence during the last century either was improved or became antiquated.If nothing is done to improve our organizational leadership processes, then our boards of directors will also become antiquated and literally die out — because I assure you, the Xers and Ys certainly aren’t going to spend 11 years serving on a board or sitting through meetings that focus on menu options.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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