What's going on that no board can ignore? Crossing the generational divide: boards must navigate one of history's great transfers of knowledge.

Author:Goldman, Laurie Ann
Position:BOARD LEADERSHIP - Cover story

Being offered a board seat is a sign that someone thinks we've accumulated enough wisdom to pass some of it down to help guide an organization. In a way, it's one of those leadership rites of passage.

The top-down imparting of wisdom has served organizations well for a long time. And as the largest generation ever is in the process of being replaced by an even larger one, we are about to witness the largest transfer of knowledge in history, which means an orderly hand-off is more important than ever.

But this transfer comes with a question. When we combine scale with the much-discussed divides in experience, values and outlooks, will the well-vetted processes of boards passing on wisdom and experience work as well now and in the future as they have in the past?

From the perspective of a relatively new board member (almost four years on the job) in the middle of the hand-off (I'm a member of Generation X, the quintessential middle child sandwiched between larger and louder Millennial and Baby Boom generations) there is ample reason to argue it might be time for some diagnostics.

It's the business of generations to be different. But the difference has never been as deep, nuanced and fluid as it is today. It used to be called a generation gap. Today, by comparison, it's a generation gulf--and it is up to boards to find ways to navigate it.

What follows are more than observations but something less than rules. So let's call these: ideas respectfully submitted for board consideration.

Idea 1: When we invite people into our knowledge and experience, make sure we give them a useful place to sit.

When I was a mid-level leader at Coca-Cola, I was invited to a monthly strategy meeting of top executives. I wasn't at the table; just a place in a somewhat uncomfortable chair along the wall. But I felt like I was given a peek to a place where decisions--maybe even history--was made. I could finally get a first-hand look at how this place works. I took notes until my knuckles ached.

Eventually, I got to take the place at the head of the table as CEO at Spanx Inc. One of the first things I did was to start inviting young and promising managers to meetings with our senior executives--so they, too, could experience the illuminating rush of seeing leadership in action.

Let's just say they were less than impressed with the opportunity. It soon got back to me that younger managers thought attending these meetings to be both boring and a waste of their time. The major complaint: "Nobody even asked me my opinion."

It was a humbling, but instructive, lesson that has carried over to my service on boards. Younger generations can have very different views about the path to opportunity. Not everybody wants to sit at the adult table. And when they do, they have no intention of sitting quietly.

Idea 2: When we dive into conversations--go deep. In a time when ideas about work and life are so dramatically different, it is more important than ever to dig down and discover...

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