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IMHO: On board at a young age

How to help young directors deliver value at the board table.

By Erin Jackson, MInstD
15 Jul 2021
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4 min to read
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OPINION: Walking into the University of Canterbury Council Chambers at the age of 22 was a daunting experience. As a newly-appointed member, I was inducted into the world of governance in a chaotic context, post-earthquake and on the cusp of the university’s rebuild.

Ten years later, I have been fortunate to sit around many more board tables – however, I often reflect on that sense of imposter syndrome in the early days.

I was reminded of that feeling recently when running a board review session. The participants were bemoaning the lack of “young people” willing to get involved. Yet, that same week, I’d had several approaches from young people desperately trying to find chances to learn about governance and seek mentoring opportunities.

Often, organisations purport to be seeking diversity around their board table – but when that same diversity challenges the “way that we do things here” it’s quickly pegged as too radical. Equally, I’ve reiterated numerous times to those looking to shift into governance that it’s about putting in the time, effort and learning.

As someone who has been privileged to be a younger person trained in governance, I’m seeing an intergenerational disconnect – and I think that we need to challenge both “sides” to do better. We know that it’s vital that boards of today reflect the communities they serve – and that, as highlighted by crises, the greater the representation, the higher the likelihood of resilience and success.

So, how do we create change? The most innovative and forward-thinking boards that I’ve been a part of have had several things in common.

Effective mentorship opportunities

True mentorship is a vital element in growing a new generation of directors. A safe and constructive relationship, where honest reflections can be shared and ideas processed, is one of the most pivotal tools in helping new directors grow their skills and confidence.

In my experience, this looks less like networking lunches and more like constructive 1:1 conversations.

That mentoring relationship becomes even more important when an issue is raised – having an advocate and support structure can be the difference between effective resolution or not. Early on in my career, I sat at a board table where I was consistently talked over and interrupted.  While I’d like to believe it was not intentional, it was nonetheless frustrating (and, even when I adopted different tactics, it continued). The fact that one of my mentors a) noticed it, b) heard my frustration and c) was able to use his influence to rebalance the conversation was hugely beneficial. 

Given that a recent IoD survey found that 31% of members had experienced or witnessed bullying, I'd also suggest that more effective mentoring relationships would go a long way to assisting improving board culture, more generally. 

We get clear on how to add value

While – of course – it’s the intention that every board meeting adds value, the challenge that I’ve always set myself (and those that I speak with) is to add the most value that I possibly can. Probably partly driven from a desire to prove that being the youngest person in the room isn’t a barrier, it’s been a central tenet to my governance career. This comes both in the boardroom and also outside – doing all of the preparation (every time) and putting your hand up for any and all of the “extra” commitments that come with the privilege of the role.

Like any well-functioning relationship, when we’re clear as a board (and as directors) about the reality of that commitment, it becomes far easier for like-minded individuals and boards to find each other. 

Diversity is truly encouraged 

I recently read the question “could we reframe ‘underrepresented’ with ‘historically excluded’? The former is a consequence of the latter.”

This is a powerful way to shift the onus onto us as board members to invite new thinking and perspectives into the room. 

When I asked younger colleagues about what they’d learned from sitting around the table, a common theme emerged – trusting that your perspective, insights and experience are worthy to be shared.

When you’re new to any team, it can be hard to feel like you’re ready to take up the space required – and, when discussing what’s brought you there, it can be tempting to share honestly, in order to “blend in”.

However, when we create spaces for those that haven’t previously been at the table, we’re only doing them (and ourselves) a disservice when we listen to reply, rather than to understand.

When we encourage directors to bring their full selves to the table (regardless of their age, background or circumstance), we enable better participation by everyone. 

One of my favourite phrases is “professional but not corporate” which is something of a personal mantra. I’ve led major organisations, held large contracts and built relationships with high-ranking people – but, all whilst still being me. That includes everything from enjoying a laugh with colleagues to challenging the status quo about issues that I’m passionate about (and wearing a lot of colour). 

Looking forward

So, while we can be justifiably excited by recent milestones – in July, it was announced that public sector boards are now made up of 50.9% women (up from 45.7% in 2017) – we’ve still got further to go when we think about making boards more accessible (and encompassing not only gender, but ethnicity, age and lived experience).

When I think about myself as a new director ten years ago, I feel fortunate that I was supported by some exceptional leaders who encouraged me to make my voice heard – and I’m now focused on looking at how I can do that for others.

Sometimes those steps are progressive and subtle – making sure that the proverbial ladder is firmly down, the door open. Other times it’s about explicitly challenging the assumption that the youngest person in the room automatically becomes the minute-taker.

Whichever it is, I believe that we all – across the generations – have a role to play in stepping up.

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About the author

Erin Jackson MInstD is founder and director of Narrative Campaigns, an Edmund Hillary Fellow and currently holds several other board roles. She's an expert in purpose-based storytelling and is passionate about equality, representation and how we can learn from crises.

The views expressed in this article do not reflect the position of the IoD unless explicitly stated.

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