Should the boards of the future be the boards of today?

Six months ago, I wrote a column to throw out a challenge to Chairs to think carefully about where their next board members should come from. Despite the growing purchasing power of younger people and the rapid pace of technological transformation, few companies have more than three decades represented on their boards and fewer still have any board members under 35.

One brave and forward thinking Chair came back to me the minute after I had pressed the button and challenged me to find them a board member for the £15bn retailer that they head up. The first person that they interviewed said the following to them: “I don’t shop in supermarkets, I use Amazon; I don’t have a washing machine, I use Laundrapp; I don’t own a car, I use Uber and Boris bikes; I don’t cook, I use Deliveroo most evenings. I bought a flat and got my mortgage through Trussle and I have never been inside a bank, I use Monzo.’

Although perhaps an extreme example, this is the customer of the future – almost entirely detached from the conventional retail and consumer ecosystem that has sustained the titans of our industries for decades. But where are these people represented on company boards, particularly on the big PLC’s where organizational complexity is making it difficult to adapt to an era of rapid and transformational change?

I don’t shop in supermarkets, I use Amazon; I don’t have a washing machine, I use Laundrapp; I don’t own a car, I use Uber and Boris bikes; I don’t cook, I use Deliveroo most evenings. I bought a flat and got my mortgage through Trussle and I have never been to a bank, I use Monzo.” – a millennial founder & CEO of an AI company

When I started the search, I thought that I should get advice from a Managing Partner at one of the world’s most prominent tech venture capital firms. Naturally, I thought that he would have an inside track on the brightest lights and best talents that digital and tech has to offer. Instead, he told me that boards are a holdover from the sixteenth century – that they’ve ‘been run the same way since the Dutch East India Company was founded!’ and that I would struggle to find any interested candidates. Why, he asked me, would a millennial want to sit on a PLC Board?  It turned out that the opposite was true – not one that I approached was disinterested.

All of the candidates were excited by the chance to play a part in transforming a historic company in one of the UK’s most storied industries. This is, after all, a nation of shopkeepers. More than that – they were honoured. The struggle wasn’t in convincing these individuals to say yes, it was in finding enough spaces for them to fill. While many of the candidates were not shoppers in the traditional sense, they were engaged with the retail environment of today and energised by the potential of the retail environment of tomorrow.

Ed Relf, Founder & CEO of Laundrapp

It’s not just startups and tech. We searched well beyond the boundaries of the digital world to find candidates who could truly make an impact at this level. In many cases that meant speaking to innovative and inspirational founders whose businesses are shaping today’s consumer sector. They have an ability to identify a hole in the market, a space for something new that consumers want, a sense of playing a part in social commerce and a desire to drive the growth necessary to succeed in tomorrow’s world. This seemed to me to be commercial gold dust. The right time to have someone like this on the board was yesterday.

Of course, boards do have complex oversight, risk management and audit duties that require deep experience to deliver effectively – there’s still plenty of room for people who’ve come up through the traditional career routes. Even here though there is a case to be made that in key areas like cybersecurity and future-proofing, a representative of the customer of the future can provide some critical and much-needed perspective.

Six months ago, I was convinced that adding fresh points of view to PLC boards was essential if the consumer and retail sectors are to truly prepare for the future. Having gone through the search process and amassed my bank of Boards of the Future candidates, I am more convinced than ever. On both sides, engaged candidates and forward-thinking Chairs have been more than willing to get stuck in to the difficult work of adapting complex businesses to the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s customers.

It’s not a panacea – nor should it be. The challenge of reshaping sectors and industries to meet the demands of the modern economy is ongoing – retail wasn’t built in a day. But, regardless of where the best talent can be found, the fact remains that there’s a great deal to be gained if more businesses start looking. Diversity, digital transformation and knowing your customer are fundamental tenets of every sector we work with, and having a representative of the customer of the future on the board can help with all three. If you are a forward-thinking Chair, please call me on 07785 904212 to meet some of some of the brightest and the best leaders of the future. | @MoiraBenigson | @TheMBSGroup