By Eyal Genende
We live in a rapidly changing world. As the digital revolution continues to unleash disruptive waves across the economy, a younger generation of digitally native professionals has valuable insight and perspective to offer at a board level. But how do we ensure these capable young professionals are prepared for the rigor and responsibility of board life?
Jewish Care Victoria examined this question through its inaugural next-gen board training program, aptly named ‘Yesod’, meaning ‘foundation’ in Hebrew. Together with nine other young professionals, I was given the chance to consider this and other governance issues. In the process we gained greater insight into the board management of Jewish Care, a not-for-profit organisation which supports more than 5,000 people annually in the Victorian Jewish community primarily through the provision of disability, aged care and other social services.
We started the program with AICD (Australian Institute of Company Directors) training. This provided us with theoretical appreciation of some essentials, like interpreting financial statements and strategic planning, through to more subjective corporate governance challenges. One practical issue discussed was the need for courage in the boardroom. Initially this seemed strange.
The word courage seemed out of place in a context where a paper cut felt like the greatest threat.
But the significance of boardroom courage emerged as we discussed the challenges of voicing unpopular opinions, and the self-doubt in asking questions that may seem obvious or stupid in the presence of intelligent accomplished colleagues.
It is well-recognised that a board’s decision-making framework is enhanced by the diversity and quality of its board members. One reason for this is that different thoughts, perspectives and experiences reduce the risk of ‘groupthink’ (or uncritical conformity to the prevalent reasoning), which facilitates critical and lively discussion leading to the best resolution. For example, in Adam Grant’s best-selling book Originals, the demise of photo giant Kodak was attributed to the company stifling divergent opinions. Had the Kodak Board embraced diversity of thought, the company could have seized opportunities to produce digital cameras as early as the 80’s, thus averting collapse.
While there is a critical need for gender diversity on boards, Catherine Livingstone AO (Chair of CBA) has noted that diversity of skills, experience and ideas are of equal importance.
In an evolving world where new approaches and technology quickly emerge, young professionals have valuable perspectives to offer.
To the detriment of the board, the potential value of these unique perspectives may never be realised if young professionals lack the courage to voice divergent opinions. Through the purposeful structure of the Yesod program, we were empowered not just to take a seat at the board table, but to also contribute to the lively discussion and debate.
To give us the opportunity to immediately apply and develop the theory learned in the AICD training, we were assigned to Board sub-committees, provided with briefing materials and encouraged to ask questions and contribute to the discussion. Additionally, the intimate discussions arranged with well-known business leaders including Carol Schwartz AM, Nora Scheinkestel and James Ostroburski further encouraged us to ask difficult questions and not to be swayed by consensus.
At the end of the program we were invited to simulate that month’s board meeting, complete with a 300-plus page briefing pack, executive reports and resolutions. It concluded with the Jewish Care Board (after having conducted the same meeting) debriefing with us, comparing notes on discussion points and resolution outcomes.
The Yesod program was a powerful learning experience. It left me with clear insight into the demands of a board commitment and the value of a diverse and multigenerational board. It gave me a strong appreciation for the highly professional executive and non-executive management of Jewish Care, while also strongly impressing me with the importance of courage in the boardroom.
Eyal Genende is a Strategy & Innovation Consultant with PwC’s Digital Services, which helps major organisations meet challenges through technology and experience design.