Making the Most of Multigenerational Boards

By Chuck Underwood December 1, 2020 May 11th, 2021 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

Boards responsible for higher education in the current decade are far more diverse in age than those of decades past. The different cultural experiences of these groups have shaped not only different lenses through which they view the world and their roles in it but different de facto modes of collaboration. As a result, having a generational strategy for the boardroom has never been more important—or complex—in our lifetimes.

Further, I maintain no other sector – business, government, religion – can make use of a longer list of generational strategies than education. Here’s just a starter list of generational strategies colleges and universities should develop:

  • Leadership and Governance
  • Board Composition
  • Executive Search
  • Board Structure and Productivity
  • Board Ethics
  • Board Communications
  • Legislative Affairs
  • Alumni Relations
  • Fundraising/Development
  • Human Resources
  • Facilities Planning/Design
  • Community Outreach
  • Counseling
  • Intuitional Research
  • Health Care
  • Parent Relations
  • Curriculum/Course Design
  • Marketing/Branding

Bottom line: Generational awareness should be applied consistently as a lens for planning, deciding, or executing any institutional matter involving people. Facility in this area is increasingly indispensable to effective board leadership—including chairs and vice chairs, committee chairs, and especially members of the governance committee (who must simultaneously participate and critically observe the work).  Boards need to be familiar with, and savvy in, dealing with each of the strategies listed above: both internal board strategies, such as board composition, productivity, ethics, preferred ways of working, and communications, and, the many institutional strategies also listed.

In other words, generational dynamics are already woven through virtually every element of your institution, including your board, and so generational strategies must be as well.

The inverse is also true: Generational knowledge and strategies – when based on glib and observations devoid of rigor – can erode your achievement at scale. In the 1980s, I was one of a half a dozen social scientists to devote about 15 years of our lives to the research, testing, and validation that would launch this field of study into the mainstream in the decade of the 2000s, when American business, government, education, and even religion were hearing about it and becoming curious. Some industries embraced generational insights immediately, such as health care. Some came later, like education. Additionally, a number of latecomers to generational studies surged into staffrooms and boardrooms to provide relatively superficial trainings, which has frequently resulted in misinformation, or misapplication of insights. For example:

  • Gen Z does not stretch up to age 25 or anywhere near it; and
  • There is no such thing as a 16- or 12- or 2-year-old member of any generation—we don’t join a generation until we leave high school.

The key implication here is that while your board members have likely been learning for several years about relevant social norms of the next generation of traditional-age students, we were only beginning to shape very preliminary data-based understandings of that group when the pandemic hit. Now, partway through an event that will clearly shape predominant cognitive and behavioral traits for that entire generation, we may in fact know even less than we thought.

Your board and institution are today extraordinarily susceptible to misunderstandings about how to serve the next generation of students, even as boards, management teams, faculty, and staff find their own ranks more diverse in age. At a time when campus health, financial challenges, and racial justice issues are understandably dominating board attention, well-considered generational strategies pose a timely and forward-looking opportunity.

Chuck Underwood, one of the original pioneers of generational study, is the author of the  book America’s Generations In The Workplace, Marketplace, And Living Room.  His PBS television series, “America’s Generations with Chuck Underwood,” is the first series about the generations in national-television history. During the AGB National Conference on Trusteeship (a virtual event to be held April 12-14, 2021), Chuck will lead a session titled “Multigenerational Board Governance.”

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