Need fresh thinking in your business? Try a next-gen board

Written by Matthew Rock Tuesday 17 August 2021
To help them get to the future quickly, organisations are creating ‘next-gen’ boards and getting young people involved
Group. of young professionals in a lively meeting

The history of business is littered with companies that failed to see the future. Kodak, Palm, Netscape, Nokia were all swept away by rivals who better understood where the market – or, crucially, the next market – was headed. MBA courses are packed full of these stories. Anyone remember Go Fly?

To get a better handle on the future, some organisations are testing out ‘next-generation boards’; many universities are appointing students onto their councils. All these boards take different forms but they share a common purpose: to bring the views of future consumers and young people closer to the strategy of the organisation.

It’s a fascinating development that was explored in this 2019 Harvard Business Review article that looked at how Gucci, Accor, GroupM, Stora Enso and others were using such boards to keep themselves relevant.

The forces that drive organisations to create next-gen boards have intensified since the pandemic: consumers have adopted new habits; digitisation has accelerated; big new social causes have emerged. More than ever, organisations need that jolt of new thinking that a next-gen board can bring.

To help CMI members understand next-gen boards, and to shed light on how they work best, we brought together a group of CMI Companions for an exclusive roundtable discussion. The conversation was led by Rebecca Robins CMgr CCMI, global chief learning and culture officer at Interbrand. Rebecca wrote a brilliant, detailed study of Interbrand’s ‘Horizon’ board in CMI’s magazine in 2020, with a further update in Quartz. Patrick Dunne CMgr CCMI, the author of Boards and someone who has direct experience of engaging young people on boards at Leap Confronting Conflict, The University of Warwick and establishing a next gen board (Youth Advisory Board) at the EY Foundation, also joined the conversation.

These are my main takeaways.

1. Really understand why you’re doing this

Are you looking to launch new brands or products for younger consumers? Do you want your next-gen board to help with your digital transformation? It helps to have a clear reason why you’re doing this, says Rebecca Robins. For Interbrand, the purpose was, in part, “to tap into the pulse and future-focused lens of our next-gen Interbranders, and bring it closer to our strategy” she explains.

The name of your next-gen board will signal its purpose. At Interbrand they gave this serious consideration and went for ‘Horizon board’ because it signalled the board’s intent – this was not a shadow board - and reflected both their role in horizon scanning, and the substance of their remit. “This was never a project, it was a commitment,” says Rebecca. Other terms include ‘shadow’, ‘millennial’, ‘youth advisory’ or ‘next-gen’ board.

2. Get the process and framework right

If you want to set up a next-gen board, it’s important to allow your next-generation talent to co-create the process. The selection process, for example, is crucial, and you should involve young people and potential next-gen board members in scoping this out. At Interbrand, employees under-30 were encouraged to put themselves forward. “We invited anyone eligible to submit a short video as part of their application. This was not about Interbranders being put forward - it was important that this was an open, accessible and engaging process,” says Rebecca.

Make an effort to put together a melting pot of perspectives. Interbrand’s Horizon board includes people from around the world who work in five different time zones. Members need to be under 30 years old and, says Rebecca, they need to ‘live our behaviours’. Formed just before the pandemic struck, they’ve never actually met in-person as a group but, interestingly, have become a beacon for how people can collaborate in a virtual world.

And think about the tenure of the board. Interbrand set 18-month terms, which Rebecca says has proven to be about right and gives members time to coalesce as a group.

3. Offer support to next-gen board members

An effective next-gen board needs senior-level sponsorship. Interbrand’s Horizon board gets that from the CEO himself who meets on a monthly basis with Horizon board members; Rebecca Robins is an ongoing sponsor and ‘sparring partner’.

Remember also that a lot of boardroom protocols will be new to next-gen members. They will need advice on confidentiality issues, for example, and how they communicate the board’s outputs with colleagues and their own line manager. Interbrand’s Horizon board members were onboarded with pre-reading in Patrick Dunne’s Boards.

All this said, you should also let the board evolve; give its members the freedom to develop its scope. Remember, it’s their ideas and perspectives you’re after.

4. The next-gen board needs to align with the main board

There are some governance issues to straighten out before you launch your next-gen board. Patrick Dunne, who chairs the EY Foundation and is something of a governance guru, has some useful insights here.

“Basically there is no universally right model for this,” he says. You can go for an ‘advisory’ board that simply offers advice to the executive and Board. This kind of board is simpler from a legal point of view, especially for publicly quoted companies. Or you can go further, which is what we did at the EY Foundation where the chair and vice-chair of the YAB also sit on the main board. Youth advisory board members, who are between 18 and 21, have two-year tenures and also participate in the EY Foundation’s sub-committees.

Whichever way you go, it’s crucial that you onboard new next-gen board members properly. “If you’re going to do this, you’ve really got to put the effort in,” says Patrick.

5. And remember, a next-gen board could be transformational

Establishing a next-gen board can make a huge positive impact within your organisation beyond the additional ideas and insights they bring. Patrick Dunne says that when the EY Foundation set up its own ‘Youth Advisory Board’ and when Leap Confronting Conflict appointed “young trustees” the organisations benefited from increased legitimacy, greater authority for their points of view as well as a boost to engagement with their key beneficiary groups and funders.

He also noted that at EY Foundation, because they had over 100 applications to join and spoke to each of the people who’d applied, not only did they end up with a really good Youth Advisory Board but also a big pool of new ambassadors and influencers for the charity. Finally, he also thinks that increased generational diversity in relation to decision making leads to much more open and more creative discussions in and outside of the board room. “You get a lot more than the ideas. Next-gen boards – done well – enrich the culture, reinforce your values and can provide a real boost to organisations.”


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