Reverse mentoring: We need more young people on boards

Having millennials and Gen Z on corporate “shadow boards” and business school governance committees can speed up innovation

The pandemic has forced business to change in profound ways and at an unprecedented speed. Business leaders have learned that far more change is possible – and can be implemented far faster – than ever imagined. Engaging millennials and members of Gen Z in organizational decision-making can increase the quality of those choices, as well as the speed of innovation.

More than half the world’s population is under the age of 40, and yet this group is dramatically underrepresented in the decision-making bodies of corporations, governments and universities.

One exciting tool some companies are using to engage millennials and members of Gen Z in business decision-making is creating a shadow board composed of younger employees who review all decisions made by the board of directors or the executive committee.

Giving young people direct access to senior decision-makers can help an organization stay relevant in an increasingly digital world. Under the direction of CEO Marco Bizzarri and creative director Alessandro Michele, luxury fashion brand Gucci introduced a “shadow committee” of young Gucci employees in 2015, which helped them reinvent the 100-year-old fashion house into an ecologically conscious millennial favourite. Gucci experienced a 136% spike in sales by 2019. In comparison, the Harvard Business Review points out that sales of Prada, which did not have a shadow board, dropped 11.5% during the same period. Prada has since been playing catch-up.

French hotel company Accor, founded in 1967, set up its youth shadow board a few years ago to try to figure out how it could stay competitive with Airbnb. Using the shadow board’s advice, the multinational hospitality firm launched a millennial-focused hotel chain called Jo&Joe.

Transforming business schools

Dusty corporations aren’t the only ones that could benefit from the insights of the next generation of business leaders. McGill business school student Maxime Lakat and his colleagues have been campaigning for years to get more student representation on business schools’ governance committees to ensure that sustainability and the climate crisis are part of curricula.

“It’s not good enough to have a course on CSR [corporate social responsibility],” says Lakat, who is chair of the Canadian Business Youth Council for Sustainable Development. “Sustainability needs to be integrated into every department in business schools.”

Years of campaigning culminated in bringing together 65 youth-led organizations to create Our Future, Our Business, a manifesto for transforming Canadian business schools. One of the report’s recommendations is that business schools have at least 30% student representation on their governance committees.

Lakat and his colleagues have organized symposia, released reports and engaged supportive faculty and outside professional organizations – including Corporate Knights. Last year, Lakat was petitioning to have at least one youth seat on every corporate board. He addressed Corporate Knights’ annual Best 50 Corporate Citizens virtual gala, urging corporate leaders to do just that.

There hasn’t been much concrete progress when it comes to getting youth on corporate boards in Canada, but advocates say momentum is building toward this goal. Using the shadow board model, a youth-led organization called Student Energy is trying to facilitate youth advisory boards that help “to make forward-thinking recommendations on where companies need to go if they want to take meaningful action on climate, energy and equity,” says Meredith Adler, the executive director of Student Energy.

Many organizations have accelerated their digital transformation as a result of the pandemic and deepened their commitments to being socially and environmentally progressive. Engaging millennials and members of Gen Z in a meaningful way can help businesses – and business schools – stay culturally relevant and innovative in a rapidly evolving world.

Jim Harris is the author of the international bestseller Blindsided, which focuses on disruptive innovation.

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