Leading by example

With millennials now representing the largest cohort of the global workforce, cohabitation of multiple generations on boards seems an inevitable chapter in the future of Australia’s boardrooms.

Now in the twilight of my youth, I have had ample opportunity to reflect on the unique experience of being a millennial in my family relationships, in the workplace and, yes, on boards. I’ve also had the chance to absorb some of the perceptions that others have of my generation in these roles, best summarised by this quote I recently stumbled upon:

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

Socrates said that of the generation that succeeded him in around 400 BC. It seems little has changed.

If cohabitation is to be successful, it is worth examining this perception which has underlined intergenerational relationships for millennia.

David Finkelhor, a sociologist from the University of New Hampshire, has observed this perspective across history and termed it ‘juvenoia': the ‘exaggerated anxiety about the influence of social change on children and youth.’

Our approach to work is perhaps a little quirky; we’re the most educated generation in history, but we shun full-time work and linear career paths.

Underlying this is a thought both radical and conservative: the differences between generations are not so great as sometimes made out. However, to explore the topic, we must focus on the distinctions (be they actual or perceived). To do this, some generalisations are of course necessary.

The most perceptible distinction between our generations concerns the values we hold and how these influence our sense of purpose and the way we give effect to this in our work. From a governance perspective, this is where intergenerational cohabitation on boards is richest with challenge, but also opportunity.

Every generation brings its own unique set of values to work and to life. For millennials, the values of work and life blend indistinguishably together. Our approach to work is perhaps a little quirky; we’re the most educated generation in history, but we shun full-time work and linear career paths.

Instead, millennials prize independence, flexibility, balance and, most importantly, to see our personal values reflected in our workplaces. For my peers, who you are defines what you do (and why you do it), not the other way around.

The 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey, which examined the attitudes to work of almost 7,700 millennials, found that personal values and morals ranked as the most influential factor in decision-making at work for this cohort. Interestingly, respondents in senior roles (including board members) were more likely to be influenced by such factors, suggesting that such considerations are brought into even sharper focus for millennials in leadership positions.

When you look at this through a governance lens, it raises a number of questions: How will these values impact the way millennials work on boards? Will their careers equip them for directorship? What do they see as the purpose of governance? What contribution do they want business to make to a community? Will they want to join boards at all, or will they even think boards are the right structure to govern a company?

The new economy will call for a different approach to governance, and the values that millennials bring to the workplace may prove to be useful in responding to this change.

The most interesting questions concern how the desire to give effect to personal conscience in the workplace will square with the role and responsibilities of directors. This desire is strong among my peers, perhaps because we have grown up with the knowledge that we have inherited problems not of our making. Millennials will be charged with supporting an ageing population, significant sovereign debt and addressing (and living with) climate change and its effects. It is clear to my generation that these problems must be addressed in what we do and how we do it – at work and at home.

This perspective will encourage millennials to naturally assume a more expansive view of the duty to act in the best interests of a company. The decisions a board makes and the resultant actions of a company have an impact on the goals we share for our community. Directors duties are formulated in a way that is sufficiently broad to enable directors to balance a range of factors in their decision making (they do not compel directors to exclusively pursue short-term profit), but whether this happens in practice is another matter entirely.

This may be a more significant issue than we may think.

Our economy is transitioning. Emergent technology, climate change and political destabilisation are some of the factors (to name but a few) that are dramatically reshaping our economy and the expectations the community has of how business should operate within it.

The new economy will call for a different approach to governance, and the values that millennials bring to the workplace may prove to be useful in responding to this change.

Globally, inequality is at its most pronounced in recorded history. Among OECD countries, inequality is at its greatest in 30 years. We now know that this inequality has a negative impact on economic growth, largely due to its corrosive effect on the accumulation of human capital, making it both an urgent moral and economic consideration.

Embedding social conscience and environmental responsibility are not ethical luxuries, but necessary to ensure long-term growth. This perspective comes naturally for many millennials, but simply plugging a younger person into your board machine doesn’t guarantee successful integration of this perspective.

I have no doubt Socrates believed that his successor generation would fail, but maybe it has always been that hidden in vices of new generations are the tools to overcome the challenges of the future. Finding a way for different generations to work on shared goals, even if they are understood from different perspectives, must be achieved if we are to turn the challenge of intergenerational cohabitation on boards into opportunity.