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Who gets to join your 21C board of directors? A provocation

Are you wondering about your board of directors being fit for purpose? If you’re a chairperson, or company secretary, or head of the board governance/nominations committee, the indefatigable Tom Peters has some recommendations for you in his latest book, Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism.

Assume a board of ten persons for a large organization. In 2021, Tom thinks your board composition should be as follows.

At least four directors (or five or even six) should be women. No excuses. As I wrote here recently, if you still can’t find women for your board, you clearly don’t know where to look. The problem is probably you, not the missing women.

Two folks on the board should be entrepreneurs, people who have successfully run their own sizeable businesses. Why? Because you need an entrepreneurial mindset to infect the board. Don’t just look for professionals, experts, and technocrats; look for those who have taken risks and blazed trails.

Tom goes further. He suggests two of your board members should be below the age of thirty. If you have recovered from choking on your cornflakes, I’ll continue. In 2021, and particularly here in Africa, you can no longer ignore the young, or take them for granted, or pretend to understand them. They have to be represented, and they have to be served. They have to tell the rest of us what’s what in their world, which, trust me, is pretty damn different from your world and mine. If you want to understand youth consumer trends and cultural patterns, you will need translators on your board.

The corollary? Tom suggests you should have no more than one or two people older than sixty. Oh no, I see you’ve spluttered your tea all over the newspaper. Let me give you some time to gather yourself. Welcome back. Why this ageism? Because experience of the past may be overrated when the future is so uncertain and so likely to demand step-changes in strategy.

Also, you need to rethink the range of expertise that’s required for boards these days. Once upon a time, you only went looking for accountants and lawyers. Perhaps an engineer. And a couple of MBA-types were always good. Well, that, too, is passé. Here here some skill-and-experience sets Tom thinks would be good for your board: proper digital/data savvy; a design guru of some sort; and finally, a “weirdo,” someone you might never have considered for a board, just to get some unusual perspectives and challenges going.

May I add some skillsets of my own? You should also look for “people people” – those with deep understanding of human beings, and experience of managing them, at scale. People specialists and organisational psychologists are going to come into play, big-time, when you are forced to think about reskilling, continuous learning and cultural evolution as core to the corporation.

Add passion for and experience of customer excellence to that mix. Oh, and if your future strategy is about crossing national borders and going continental or global, please don’t have everyone on the board hailing from the home country…

That’s it. Wait, are you thinking all those add up to more than ten people? That’s because a person can be in more than one category, duh.

You’re thinking of rolling up this newspaper and throwing it in the bin, aren’t you? Because you still read the printed one, and because what you’ve just read did not reflect any experience you’ve ever had of a board of directors? Where are the shareholders, you ask? And the seasoned grey hairs? The ones who will help open doors with government? The ones who will not ask too many pesky questions?

That’s exactly the point. We used to appoint directors to protect the key shareholder’s interests; to give us external influence; to not rock the boat; as a reward or a sinecure; or just to help us swing key decisions already made.

In 2021, you’d better be thinking rather differently about your board of directors. If they are going to be the body of people making the big calls for the future of the organization, they will need to be able to contribute to the imagining of that future, not just read board papers and nod through meetings. They will need to be representative of the world served by the organization.

Nothing written here precludes you from seeking people of good character, good judgement, good temperament. Those qualities go without saying.

You can disagree with the details of Tom’s advice, or mine. You can take a slowly-slowly approach to rethinking board composition. That’s your prerogative. Treat this as a provocation, not a prescription. What you can’t do, however, is run a 21C board like we never left 20C. That will be your undoing. Still, it’s your call.

(Sunday Nation, 11 July 2021)

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