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Millennials Can Add Unique Value to the Boardroom
There are 54 million millennials in the United States — the generation that includes individuals between 18 and 34 years old. In the business world, millennials have often baffled older generations, who have struggled to understand and work well with them. But, according to research from the Pew Charitable Trust, millennials are also the most diverse and educated demographic. And they are quickly becoming the largest and most influential generation in today’s workforce.

That is why association boards would be well-served to look past the stereotypes often attached to millennials, better understand what motivates them and start to court them for the boardroom. It’s been well-documented that millennials are driven by the desire to make an impact. Therefore, they are often committed and engaged when serving on boards. They can also bring untapped perspectives, establish and influence new networks, introduce innovative ways to reach prospective members and strengthen long-term board succession planning.

According to millennial advocates such as Colette Huzinec, SmithBucklin’s chief human resource officer, boards would benefit greatly by looking past standard board profiles and considering the promise and potential of millennials.

“All of us have had to deal with generational biases,” Huzinec explained. “Baby boomers had them and Gen X had them, too. Millennials have sometimes gotten a bad rap, and they are very aware of it and frustrated by it.”

The key, Huzinec said, is to look past generational biases and understand why millennials are unique. For example, Pew Research reports millennials are the first generation that has not experienced life apart from the Internet. As a result, they place a premium on the transparency and instant access the digital world delivers, and they collaborate differently thanks to online networking. Additionally, having grown up in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Great Recession, millennials are motivated by different values. According to Pew Research, loyalty is hard-earned for millennials. Independent thinking is applauded. Questioning the status quo is normal. If they cannot find meaning in their work or activities, they will search for opportunities where they can. They respect competence more than authority. They believe more in work/life integration than they do work/life balance. They prefer to be part of the decision-making process.

American Evaluation Association: Giving Millennials a Seat at the Table

Corrie Whitmore is one of the millennials who embodies the potential that Huzinec and others see in the next generation of leaders. Whitmore has been a member of the American Evaluation Association (AEA) since 2010 and fits the millennial profile that Pew Research describes. Idealistic and driven, she was impressed with her initial membership experience in AEA, an international association of 7,000 researchers devoted to the application and exploration of program evaluation, personnel evaluation, technology and many other forms of evaluation. In addition to participating in conferences and workshops to enhance her professional development, she worked to expand the association’s influence in her home state of Alaska, where she was founding president of AEA's state affiliate. Although she was already contributing to the association in meaningful ways, characteristic of millennials, she longed to make a bigger difference.

“I was really inspired by how diverse the board was,” said Whitmore, who was elected to the AEA board in January. “There was racial diversity, ethnic diversity, experience diversity and geographic diversity. But we did not have as much age diversity. When I decided to run, I wanted to offer that perspective.”

Stewart Donaldson, president of AEA, noted that the board has been diligent about prioritizing diversity and inclusion within the association for the last 15 years. Age diversity, with an emphasis on reaching millennials, has emerged as a recent priority for AEA, whose membership includes 800 graduate students. In addition to offering dedicated panels and workshops for millennials at conferences, the association leverages social media to reach younger members and routinely seeks their input on strategic decisions. Additionally, AEA has established a Graduate Education Diversity Internship program to engage and support younger adults in the field, which is currently more populated with older professionals.

“We think about the future of our field and believe that we need to start engaging our younger members as soon as possible,” he said. “They may not have the same years of professional experience, but they do have a perception of things that is invaluable. If we had a narrower or more homogeneous view, we would have a much smaller impact on our field.”

He points to Whitmore and her unbridled commitment as an example. “Corrie wanted to be on the board. There was a strong desire. And now that she is, she gives us real insight to how her generational peers are impacted by our programs and decisions.”

Whitmore encourages other boards to follow AEA’s lead and consider candidates’ potential as much as existing skill sets when it comes to building a pipeline of prospective millennial board members.

“The traditional belief is that you cannot be on a board unless you have certain years of experience in the field or have served on certain committees,” she said. “Well, people measure experience differently. Yes, I am in my 30s, but I am using new technology in ways my colleagues have not. I have had a number of roles in a few years where my peers have been in fewer roles for longer years. And along the way, I have earned a master’s degree, defended a dissertation and started a family. That is a different — but relevant — kind of experience.”

Courting Millennials for the Boardroom

Huzinec, Whitmore and Donaldson offer some simple suggestions to help associations identify and court millennials who have the potential to be well-suited for a role in the boardroom:
  • Leverage millennials as a sounding board for strategic decisions. Engage them to see how they can help the association achieve its vision, and then extend leadership opportunities to the ones who have a passion for the board’s vision. “They want to have a meaningful voice and be part of the important conversations,” Donaldson said.
  • Designate millennials to lead strategic initiatives or special projects. Because they grew up with digital platforms such as online social networks, millennials have enormous capability to shape reputation. This is how Whitmore had a chance to shine for AEA, by helping coordinate content for one of the association’s blogs. “I loved it. I was interacting with established authors who were writing the textbooks that I was recommending for classes,” she said.
  • Establish mentorship opportunities with experienced board members. Young leaders need opportunities to learn from experienced board members to understand the nuances of an organization’s internal operations, governance and board mechanics. “They treasure face time with senior mentors, and they respect feedback and will be grateful for it,” Huzinec said.
Millennials are the future. Their influence is rapidly growing, and their potential is limitless. As boards contemplate their long-term health and stability, building a strong foundation for millennials to exercise their voice and leadership now could pay tremendous dividends in the future.
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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