In 2011 Starbucks famously appointed a millennial (a 29-year-old social media strategist) to its board, a move that would have been unheard of a decade or so before. With the world changing at a startling pace, true diversity at corporate board level has never been more essential. It is critical that boards take a deep look at what a high-performing, agile board will look like in 2017 and beyond.

So what are the key questions that both corporates and search firms should ask when assembling a board capable of building a sustainable, ‘healthy’ organisation into the future?

Leon Ayo, CEO of Odgers Berndtson Sub-Saharan Africa, cites the top questions that should be asked when assembling a board capable of building a sustainable, ‘healthy’ organisation into the future.

What does an agile and high-performing board look like?


An agile, high-performing board is a diverse mix of people who are committed to making sure the organisation is perfectly poised to achieve great things. But this board also has a firm grasp on what is realistic and possible for the company. This board is rigorous and hardworking but also visionary. It comprises people with different personality types, backgrounds, cultures, genders, races and even geographies.

Do we need a millennial on the board?


There is no simple answer to this question. Millennials are the largest generation the world has ever seen, they are the biggest consumer force and they see the world quite differently to Generations X, Y or the baby boomers.

In my view, a millennial is an excellent inclusion on a board, but they need to get there on merit just as much as older board members do. Many millennials have a strong entrepreneurial bent and are drawn to ventures which are outside of the corporate space. They may well not fit in a traditional corporate board with its structure and rigour.

On the other hand, a millennial who has shown a deep commitment to an organisation and who has proved their mettle would make an excellent addition to a board. So the goal would be not to make a panic appointment of a millennial because you feel this is the right thing to do. Millennials must be appointed purely on merit.

How important are ‘rock star’ board members?


There is a strong trend in the South African market especially, for certain successful business people to become ‘celebrity’ board members, sitting on numerous boards and raising the profile of that board.

The thinking is that their reputation will bring credibility and experience to the company. The issue here is that giving one corporate board the deep attention it needs is time-consuming – deeply examining the board pack before meetings, keeping a proper eye over competitors and macro circumstances that impact the industry, getting to know other board members so you work as a team all take time.

Doing this is virtually impossible if you sit on numerous boards. In cases like these, it is important to weigh up how much value a person’s reputation and experience can deliver to the board if they are not engaged deeply in that company.

How can you make a geographically diverse board work?


I am a firm believer in having board members from different regions sitting on a board. They bring a diversity of experience and insight which is just not possible if all members are from the same region.

So a South African mining company (for example) could certainly consider appointing an expert from Russia’s mining industry to the board. But to make this work, I believe that some ‘board bonding’ before an official board meeting is highly advantageous.

A couple of days’ team building will allow the members to approach the meeting from a perspective of feeling like a well-united team that can make the best decisions on behalf of the company.

Who is best placed to recruit board members?


An executive search firm brings a far more balanced, strategic approach to recruiting a board.

If the corporate or board does the recruiting themselves they may hire people who are in their inner circle or who have the same experience as them. In cases like these, the issue is that they end up with a board consisting of, for instance, 12 introverted IT specialists. They may lack the ability to see things from the new, fresh perspective necessary to build a sustainable organisation into the future.

A search firm deeply understands the industry and business. And it understands exactly how a diverse range of personality types, backgrounds, genders, cultures and races can combine to create a magical blend of views, ideas and innovations that allow a business to do great things.

And that really is the goal of all boards.

Picture credit: Alamy

Leon Ayo

Leon Ayo is the CEO of Odgers Berndtson South Africa based in Johannesburg. He works within all industries and sectors in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Previously he was a partner in Odgers Berndt...

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