The Bedrock Of Board Effectiveness: A Generational Gearbox – By Chuck Underwood
It is no longer optional. It is now – and forevermore – imperative. Board members must possess the Holy Grail of boardroom leadership and productivity: a generational gearbox, when dealing with the following board functions, and all other activities that involve human beings:
Ethics Investor Activism
Board Composition Pay Ratios
Board Culture Say-On-Pay
Communications Political Spending
Boldness, Vision Social Matters
Board Harmony Legislative Relations
In the past, Boards were comprised of members of only one or two generations: the older, more experienced, and presumably wiser business minds in their 60s and 70s. And overwhelmingly, white and male.
Today, Boards are now more age-diverse, gender-diverse, and ethnically diverse. But this new complexity can be simplified: every single board member belongs to a generation and brings powerful generation-specific core values to his or her performance and final decision-making. And so, if boards are trained in Generational Diversity And Strategies, they will possess the wisdom to shift gears instantly and accurately when dealing with – and frequently attempting to persuade – human beings from one generation to the next.
“Generation” used to be such a breezy, fluffy word. Pepsi Cola used it decades ago for an advertising campaign targeting Baby Boomers, whom it tried to convince was “The Pepsi Generation”. But then in the 1980s, all of that changed when a half-dozen of us here on Planet Earth were struck by the same lightning bolt: a moment of insight that whispered in our brains “generation is something far more important than anyone recognizes”. And so began our journey to create a valid field of study from nothing, conducting the formal research to prove to ourselves that our gut hunches were right, codifying the principles that would give our discipline its legitimate and unshakable foundation, and then hopping on airplanes, crisscrossing the globe, and presenting it to any audience that would listen. Generational study burst onto the scene quite spectacularly in the decade of the 2000s.
Right at the turn of this century, after we had spent the 1980s and ‘90s building our discipline (and a couple of people had tinkered with it in the ‘60s and ‘70s), major advertisers – Disney, Cadillac, Gap, and a few others – broke the longstanding tradition of creating products and ad campaigns for age brackets and, instead, did so for generations. And lo and behold, it worked!
Disney’s ad campaign for its 100-year anniversary of the birth of its founder Walt Disney targeting Silent Generation grandparents and their grandkids was a success, as was a separate ad campaign just for Boomers.
Staid, conservative Cadillac went radical and created a model just for one generation, the Boomers: a muscle-car concept (!) – the CTS – which goes down in history, as The Wall Street Journal headline shouted, as “the car that saved Cadillac”.
Gap boldly broke from the fashion-industry’s longstanding age bias that said women over age 35 were to be ignored and never used as models and instead launched a very successful multigenerational campaign that targeted both GenX and over-35 Boomer women, even using print ads for its “hoodie” sweatshirt that included a full-page pose by model Lauren Hutton, who was then… gasp… 59 years young!
And just as these kinds of generational marketplace strategies were proving their worth in the first decade of the 2000s, America’s next generation was arriving in adulthood and bewildering employers across all industry types. And to understand the Millennials, human resource executives began clamoring for training in the other major pillar of our field of study, generational workforce strategies.
And so, in the past twenty years, generational study and strategies have penetrated every corner of American business, government, education and religion, and proved their central and permanent and bottom-line value (yes, THAT bottom line; the important one).
Introducing to generational strategies in 2014, first at a “2020 Leadership” event for several-hundred directors and then to an audience of 1,300. I am grateful and humbled that it became the highest-evaluated speech in NACD history. And from those first two presentations, individual NACD chapters promptly asked me to bring Generational Strategies to their local directors. And then to the boards at individual companies also called me in for their board retreats to learn generational strategies.
Generational differences can either tie a board in knots and diminish its governance performance or it can deliver rich and varied insights, ideas, and effective governance solutions, because all directors bring unique generational strengths and weaknesses and powerful core values to their minute-by-minute, month-by-month decision-making.
Here’s where it begins:
The entire foundation of generational study is based upon 4 now-heavily-researched and universally-accepted truths:
Truth #1: Between the time we’re born and the time we leave the fulltime classroom and get fully into adulthood – late teens to early 20s – we form most of the core values and beliefs that we’ll embrace our entire lives. Yeah, we’ll evolve, we’ll change. But those core values will remain largely intact. And they will be burned into us by the times that we witness as we come of age, and by the teachings we absorb from older generations of parents, educators, religious leaders, and others. And the age group that shares the same formative years’ times and teachings will by and large share the same core values. And by sharing the same core values, we become… a generation. And any time in American life that either the times or teachings, or both, change in a significant way and a widespread way, it means young kids coming of age during those different times and different teachings will mold different core values and become our next generation.
Truth #2: and this is why generational study has become such a hot topic: Life in America, in the past century, has changed so often. And when it has changed, it seems to have changed so sharply into new directions. And we are now living nearly twenty years longer in 2021 than we did in 1921. So for the first time in U. S. history, our life expectancy has room for 5 living generations, and just arriving a sixth, each of whose formative years were very different from all other generations and each of whose core values, as a result, are also very different.
Truth #3: The unique core values that each generation molds during its unique formative years will now exert astonishing influence over that generation’s lifelong career decisions and on-the-job performance, consumer choices, lifestyle preferences, personal relationships, and personal behavior.
Truth # 4: There is no such thing as a 16-year-old, 12-year-old, or 2-year-old member of a generation. We do not join a generation until we finish our classroom years, and especially our K-through-12 school years. Until then, we are in our pre-generation years, the bewildering and fast-moving formative years, when we are constantly “trying on” a blizzard of core values being handed to us by our elders and deciding which ones we’ll keep and which we’ll discard. This is the sorting process of youth, when we might change a core value in a nanosecond. And so generations begin at age 18, which is when each of us now possesses a set of core values we are likely to keep for life, even as we change and evolve.
So: if we understand the unique formative years that molded the unique core values that guide the unique lifelong decision-making of each generation, we can fully connect with and succeed with the members of each generation with whom we deal, day after day.
With those permanent and proven principles of generational study, here are America’s five living generations, and soon a sixth:
NAME BORN AGE IN 2021
1. G. I. 1901 – 1926 95+
2. SILENT 1927 – 1945 76 to 94
3. BOOMER 1946 – 1964 57 to 75
4. GEN X 1965 – 1981 40 to 56
5. Millennials 1982 – to 39
6. Generation Z just arriving about 18 to 19
In 2021, three generations – younger Silents, all ages of Boomers, and older X’ers – dominate most boards (the tech sector probably skews younger; healthcare probably tilts older; et. al.); and because of their unique and sometimes difficult-to-understand early-life passage and core values, Millennials also are entering boardrooms in some industries at a much earlier age than before.
Here are some bullet points about each generation. If you think this is actionable information and you will now know enough to execute generational board strategies, then shame on you: you’re about to fall spectacularly on your face. Many have tried to take shortcuts with generational strategies and had their brainstems snapped. This stuff can turn on you if used improperly.
This is merely a broad brushstroke:
SILENTS AS BOARD DIRECTORS
Believe in the traditional hierarchy, chain of command
Not as combative, aggressive as Boomers
Courtesy and civility are important
They like to solve it quietly over lunch
Prefer in-person over phone
Prefer phone over email
Excellent at reading body language
They listen before talking
They don’t talk as fast as X’ers and Millennials
Don’t misinterpret their silence during a meeting; they aren’t missing a thing
Rapidly catching up on tech
Boards should accommodate possible diminished eyesight and hearing
BOOMERS AS BOARD DIRECTORS
Believe in the best idea, not hierarchy
Most believe in transparency
Their women and minorities are arriving in force
Willing to be combative
Fight hard for their values
Expect you to push back just as hard
But courtesy and civility are still important
Love a group dynamic
Prefer in-person over phone
Prefer phone over email
Excellent at reading body language
X’ERS AS BOARD DIRECTORS
Excellent at creativity, finding solutions
They’ll give the world new products, services, efficiencies
Self-reliant, independent; might not ask for help when they need it
They’re tough: survival of the fittest
Women continue to surge
Might prefer solitary work over groups
Not as aggressive in group; might need to be pulled in to discussion
Like to research issue before discussing
Strong self-focus; vulnerable to “me-over-we”
Might be vulnerable to greed, corruption
Might stress company metrics over quality and “the human touch”
They’ll benefit from X’er-specific leadership training
MILLENNIALS AS BOARD DIRECTORS
Relentless job hoppers. The good: varied experiences. The bad: weak loyalty.
Lack depth of knowledge with single company
Excellent career “spirit”
Eager to learn, eager to please
Love group dynamics
The Tech Generation, which is very good and very bad
Delaying marriage, parenting to latest ages ever
Idealistic, empowered, engaged
Like Boomers, “we”-oriented, not “me”
Demand good corporate citizenship, ethics
As a generation, sickened by executive/director/raider ruthlessness
Many are avoiding careers with publicly-held corporations
Stress quality over metrics
Defend workers, customers
Will mature in careers later than prior generations
MILS AS BOARD DIRECTORS: DAMAGED BY THE TECHNOLOGY REVOLUTION
Sense of immediacy has given them a unique impatience, restlessness
Short attention spans
Crave variety and change
Knowledge is superficial; they’ve learned in mini-blasts
Silent fluency: the ability to read body language
Don’t forget: everyone is an individual, and we should never use generational strategies to unfairly stereotype anyone. But with proper training, and used accurately and sensitively, this knowledge will serve as a trustworthy lighthouse to guide you through your interpersonal dealings with all generations.
Chuck Underwood, one of the half-dozen people who codified and popularized generational study and strategies, is the host of the PBS national television series America’s Generations With Chuck Underwood, author of the book America’s Generations In The Workplace, Marketplace, And Living room, in all generational strategies for over five-hundred clients.