Kittleman Blog

Here Come the Millennials: Preparing Boards for the Generational Shift

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

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There’s an interesting trend happening in the workplace right now. After many leaders of the baby boomer generation made the decision to delay retiring as a result of the Great Recession of 2007-2009, we began to witness a slow build of retirements. It began around 2013, then exploded in 2019, leading to an infusion of younger talent into the executive space.

Generation Xers (born 1965 - 1980) have moved into many of the open leadership positions, but there remains a greater number of leadership opportunities than qualified candidates to fill them. So, what does that mean for boards looking to fill leadership positions in the near future?

Perhaps the answer is changing the way we look at candidates.

The Experience-Focused Search

According to Cory King, CEO of Kittleman & Associates, boards have traditionally been heavily focused on the number of years of leadership experience as a key qualifier for their open executive director or CEO positions.

“The typical pool of qualified candidates for executive director or CEO roles once had anywhere from 15 to 30+ years of leadership experience,” says Cory. “Now we’ll have 1-2 applicants in that category and the rest will have 10-15 total years under their belts, some of that in management.”

Which means that many of the individuals applying for these leadership positions fall into the much criticized and often underestimated millennial generation. Born between 1981 - 1996, the oldest of this generation are in their early 40s, less than two decades into their careers.

A shrinking pool of candidates with extensive experience in senior positions is a concern for many organizations. According to Rick King, Kittleman chairman, a demonstrated ability to effectively manage others is at the top of the list of desirable attributes for a CEO.

“Boards want evidence that a candidate can manage people and budgets, and they need to know that they’re capable moving everyone forward,” says Rick.

Identifying Emerging Leaders

Then how do boards find people who are qualified to lead their organization in the current climate? Cory suggests they begin to re-think the way they look at candidates.

“Instead of automatically disqualifying an individual because they don’t have the desired tenure in leadership positions, we encourage boards to take a closer look at each candidate’s skills and achievements,” he says.

While many of the candidates applying for leadership positions may lack significant experience directly supervising people, Rick points out that candidates who have been in a position senior enough to allow them to work directly with board members possess a valuable leadership skill.

“For example, someone working in fundraising for a nonprofit is going to work in partnership with the board quite a bit,” says Rick. “Particularly when you’re in a position that helps direct certain board activity, you’re at huge advantage when applying for a leadership role that reports to a board.”

Similarly, younger candidates who have been in a senior position at a small nonprofit where they were responsible for successfully managing a sizable budget are well-positioned for a leadership role. Since millennials don’t tend to stay in jobs as long as their predecessors (five to seven years on average), they aren’t likely to join an organization where the expectation is to maintain the status quo. On the contrary, they’re looking to make an impact and institute change, which can result in impressive achievements in a shorter span of time.

“Younger people can prove themselves as a leader through accomplishments,” says Cory. “But they’re also the type of candidates who will want to know how the board sees the organization changing with a new leader, and some boards aren’t prepared to answer that question.”

Preparing Boards for the Search

Turnover in leadership roles is happening quickly, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. However, there is a delay in the generational shift in boards, which are still largely dominated by retired professionals. This can lead to a disconnect between how boards typically conduct searches and younger people’s expectations for the interview process. For this reason, Kittleman and & Associates focuses on preparing boards for the concerns and questions candidates may have about the hiring organization.

“While each candidate is unique, we have seen certain themes emerge while working with younger applicants,” explains Cory. “Helping board members to understand what’s important to millennial leaders makes for a smoother, more successful search process.”

  1. Diversity
    For many boards, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work is often somewhere on the list of objectives in a larger strategic plan. Conversely, millennial leaders see DEI as a core element of the strategic plan.
  2. Transformative change
    It may be difficult for board members to embrace conversations about change, but hiring a millennial leader looking to make an impact offers a unique opportunity for an organization to reposition itself.
  3. Culture
    Millennials are often characterized as a generation driven by a sense of purpose, so it’s important for young leaders and board members to be on the same page. Board members should go into the search process with a clear understanding of – and the ability to communicate – an organization’s vision and priorities, as well as clear expectations for a new leader. Additionally, it’s important to millennial leaders to be involved with an organization that values not just what they do, but who they are. Work is only part of what these leaders do, and they want to work somewhere that recognizes that.
  4. Collaboration
    thrive in collaborative work environments where everyone contributes ideas. Not only is the level of support these leaders need higher, but they’ll also expect to share in the work of board as a partner. Board engagement will be more important than ever in moving the organization forward.

All of this comes down to one important point: boards need to be thinking beyond the job description. Taking the time to consider how an organization will change with a new leader is an essential part of preparing for an executive search, and we can help. Board collaboration has always been at the core of Kittleman’s commitment to helping nonprofits make the right hire. Contact us today to learn more!

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