Leadership Lessons: Mining the Next Generation of Board Leaders

Oct 28, 2010 12:35 PM ET

Board Life Matters

The following post is an interview with Karen Baker, Secretary of Service and Volunteering, State of California. Karen Baker will be a featured speaker at the BoardSource Leadership Forum, being held November 10-11 in San Francisco. For more information on the BoardSource Leadership Forum, visit http://www.boardsource.org/blf

Karen Baker, the nation’s first state cabinet secretary for service and volunteering, discusses with Board Member why and how her state office finds and engages younger generations in governance.   Board Member: What is your board’s composition in terms of diversity?   Secretary Karen Baker: CaliforniaVolunteers has a 25-member, governor-appointed commission. Currently, there are six vacancies. From our vantage point, it’s important that the demographics of the state are reflected in the demographics of our board. We’ve done an outstanding job in the ethnicity arena; we’ll continue to address age diversity with the vacancies. For example, we have a dedicated youth board member position that we’re recruiting for [CaliforniaVolunteers defines "youth" as someone between 18 and 25 years of age]. You get a very different voice at the table when you’ve got members who are under 25 or even under 40.   Board Member: Should a board reflect the organization’s constituency?   Secretary Karen Baker: That depends. Boards need to ask themselves whether it is more important that their decisions be informed by those served by the organization or be reflective of the community in which the organization is located, ensuring, of course, that they have good avenues for getting constituent feedback.   I used to run a homeless agency. If the board had comprised all formerly homeless people, it’s unlikely that we would have been able to raise the necessary funds or have the political wins we had. We did have advisory committees that were composed of solely our client base. You have to be thoughtful about the strategy behind your board building.   Board Member: Returning to that “different voice” you mentioned earlier, what value do younger members add to your board?   Secretary Karen Baker: I think it’s their fresh perspectives – if they have the confidence to share what they really think. Older members tend to be more political, a little more careful with what they’ll say or not say. Youth just put it out there – that’s what I love about them serving on the board. They state the obvious, and they have the courage to state it without worrying if it will offend someone.   I also think they are very thoughtful about what will resonate with their age group. If you want to attract younger people to an event, they tell you if that group will turn out. Youth can help build a constituency. I’ve had young board members suggest a youth price to attend a dinner. Any age of people can be creative, of course, but you see some out-of-the-box thinking on the creative side of fundraising from youth. They have a willingness to try new ideas, so that old gala can be put to rest.   Youth’s comfort with technology is certainly notable, too. For example, if you’re planning to do some teaching and training, they’ll suggest a Webinar. That wouldn’t be the first thing out of my mouth. So, when looking at solutions to a problem, they look at those that have a strong technology base.   Board Member: What skills and qualities do you look for in young board member candidates?   Secretary Karen Baker: The confidence issue is so important. It’s not a question of whether they have something to contribute; it’s do they have the confidence to contribute something in a room full of people who are older than them. They don’t necessarily have to be high extroverts, however. Our last youth board member was a soft-spoken young woman, but whenever we asked her opinion, she had amazing, thoughtful answers.   I look for a young person’s willingness to speak up even if they don’t understand the full context of the issue being discussed. It all comes down to the tone being set by the board chair and chief executive. Do they make it safe for people, no matter their age, to comment if they don’t have contextual background but want to make a contribution? Does the board chair say, for example, to the youth member: “Jim, we haven’t heard from you. Regardless of whether you know much about this issue, does anything resonate for you from your gut?” Profound statements are often made by people sharing their gut instinct.   If you’re going to get value out of your board, the members have to be speaking. And you have to ensure that you’re hearing from everyone. At the end of our board meetings, we have a quick go-around to gather final thoughts. This gives all of our members the opportunity to say something they might not have said earlier because they didn’t want to interrupt a conversation.   Board Member: How do you identify confident young board candidates?   Secretary Karen Baker: I go out there and mine leadership. As many people say, if you want to get the right person to lead, get a person who’s already too busy! I go after doers, people who are getting something done in their churches, neighborhoods, or companies.   I ask myself, who is in a position to see the talent pool? Is it a director of human resources? A CEO? Someone at a chamber of commerce? The volunteer coordinator of a YMCA? I then ask those individuals, “Who’s the best person on your bench under the age of 30?” They’re able to tell me that; they know who their shining stars are. Recently, we were looking for AmeriCorps members to serve on the board, so we approached our AmeriCorps grantees and asked who stood out as leaders. The names came right off their tongues!   We also feel out potential board members by inviting them to serve on task forces that include board and non–board members. This allows our board members to determine if a candidate is good at collaborating with others and gives the candidate an opportunity to learn about our board. If the candidate seems to be a good fit, we bring them on as a member.   Board Member: Do you orient or prepare younger generations any differently than older generations?   Secretary Karen Baker: I think it’s important that our younger members have the same orientation as our older members. This way, they are viewed by their peers as being completely on the same playing field. There is one difference, however. I ask our younger members to keep a list of words or terms used during orientation that they are not familiar with. I then make myself available for tailored training.   Also, after every board meeting, I ask our young members if there is anything I or my staff can clarify for them. When the board is having very technical conversations about a legal or financial issue, a young person can get lost. So, we provide a safe environment with technical assistance at the back end and training at the front end.   Board Member: What skills or qualities do your older board members possess that enable them to work well with your younger members?   Secretary Karen Baker: For CaliforniaVolunteers, it’s all about selecting collaborative-type people, regardless of their age. It’s so important for a board and chief executive to decide what they value as a group, to ask, “How do we want to make decisions? What kind of discussions do we want to have? Do we want them to be vibrant and creative or efficient?” Some boards choose to be less collaborative because of the quantity of issues they face.   We’ve turned over our commission while I’ve been here. I inherited some phenomenal collaborative members. They’re still on the commission. Those who were not as collaborative ended up not being very comfortable and left when their terms expired. I want everyone involved. I want everyone to speak up. We also changed our meeting structure to include open discussion time. If you book the entire agenda, you’re never going to have that dynamic give-and-take that people, no matter their age, are looking for in their board experience. Chief executives need to identify issues that lend themselves to real input from everyone on the board.   We also recognize our board members’ contributions during our meetings, and I don’t mean financial contributions. This is especially important for younger members who are not going to be writing their organizations checks for $50,000. They need to hear that their contribution is just as significant.   References Reprinted from the November/December 2009 edition of Board Member, Volume 18, Issue 6. For more information, call 1-877-892-6273 or e-mail BoardSource. BoardSource © 2010. Text may not be reproduced without written permission from BoardSource.   Learn more about BoardSource. BS9974