First you need to create an on-ramp.

Why are our Board Members so Old?

Now that I’m on two Boards, I finally understand why there is so much gray hair on so many Board Member’s heads. They’re old. Like me.

Not that gray hair is a negative. Because of my Dad’s mostly shiny dome, I’m just happy to have some hair up there, regardless of color. And there are those that consider gray hair to be a sign of maturity; a visual reference of someone that has been gathering experience and insights over the years, making them capable of wise decisions that will benefit everyone.

But not everyone agrees that wisdom comes with age.

Do Board Members have to be old?

It probably feels that way to most people, since over 50% of board members in the US are 65+. And that ‘default setting’ for boards has occurred for several reasons. Older people have a lot of experience, with personal connections accumulated over their long careers. Plus, since they are retired (or close to it), they have the time to invest in a cause they believe in. In the simplest terms, they’re available.

But that doesn’t mean your board has to be full of older members. There should be a balance of different ages, that bring together a mixture of skills, experience, insights, and curiosity. Your decision makers should have the firsthand experiences of people in different life stages.

Why is it so hard to get younger Board members?

Time is the biggest barrier for folks still working. They are building careers, raising families, planning for the future, and always on the run from one thing to the next.

But they have also been exposed to new ideas, new social norms, and new technologies that some older board members would not even know about. They are worth connecting to, because they are also the true future of your credit union.

However, younger members MUST to be explicitly invited. Do not expect them to find you.

CUs could follow the lead of Fortune 500 corporations, and institute mandatory term limits, as a way to accelerate change. Some have even set age limits for board members (typically between 70-75 years.) That would still give board members a decade or more to share their experiences and help their credit union. (But age limits may also be a slippery slope in the future, since the share of workers 65+ is expected to increase faster than that of any other age group in the US.)

What can be done to get younger Board members?

First you need to create an on-ramp. Full board membership (ideally) takes a lot of training and a major commitment of time and energy, so whatever approach you take should look at a long-term solution.

One idea would be to start some sort of “mentor” program within CU boards. The possibility of the older generation lending their expertise and helping to guide younger board members is an interesting concept, and it would help reduce the intimidation factor.

Or you could create valuable Advisory Boards with young kids, teens, students, young professionals, etc. Start early, in order to develop the habit and expectation of participation.

After all, old age isn’t the problem, it’s old, stale thinking.

There’s a difference between mindset and age. I’ve seen young people that are strangely stuck in a “that’s the way we’ve always done it” approach, and some older people that seem to be more open to building on new ideas.

Of course there are some age-related stereotypes that ring true. Some older people become ridiculously risk-averse, which can be a barrier to necessary progress. Then again, CU Board Member isn’t a position known to attract risk-takers. Others can be more blunt, willing to speak their mind regardless of the situation. But that also means that amidst all the griping, some are even willing to go against authority and speak up when something is wrong.

While it’s true that your Board needs new blood to survive, it’s not something you should do thoughtlessly. You have to try to find the balance between experience and fresh perspectives. So before you shake up your current board member roster, be sure to look closer at their decisions, not their birthdates.

Kent Dicken

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