Age Should Be Nothing but a Number for Qualified Board Members
By Beverly Cole and Judith Schrecker
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It may be time to rethink age limits for corporate board service.

Boards and companies that are considering not hiring (or the removal of) otherwise qualified directors for no other reason than age perhaps should look to the Sunshine State and the NFL.
 
As Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady defies traditional age stereotypes in the game of football, is there a paradigm shift happening right before our eyes? And, possibly, a lesson that can be learned by corporate boards?
 
Brady – along with so many other athletes – has had a stellar career in spite of his injuries. He is not alone among athletes when it comes to raising the bar. 
 
How about the Olympians who are pushing the limits of physical and mental competitiveness? Does the fact that society has made efforts in medicine, food and knowledge of the human body mean that some of our traditional paradigms should be reconsidered? Should these advances shift our thoughts about age and retirement?
 
People are living longer while maintaining physical stamina and mental acumen. These individuals have cumulatively thousands of years of experience and know-how, which will retire with them in the current scenario. Are we losing great insights by limiting the age of corporate board members? As corporate boards work to diversify, are we ignoring age as a valued asset for corporate board members? It’s important to ensure that corporate boards are relevant and that they provide the diversity of experience to ensure that companies are being served in multidimensional ways. So, why would companies limit their board participation via age limits?
  
While many baby boomers are embracing retirement, having achieved economic independence, many remain active. They’re starting new businesses, careers and hobbies. Some are traveling the world and writing second, third and fourth chapters of their lives. 
COVID registered significant impacts on the workforce. Many of the younger generation are choosing to “do their own thing,” starting their own businesses. The impact has been that Fortune 500 and Nasdaq companies aren’t able to fill open roles, create an employee pipeline or deepen succession planning rosters. Many senior executives from these companies are offered rich packages to retire, which opens senior roles for others. These retirees have significant experience and subject matter expertise to share. Are we ignoring this pool of talent as corporate boards look to reverse the graying of corporate boards by imposing age limits? Even worse, is this unconscious bias? While baby boomers may be considering employment options that require fewer hours of work, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to have an impact on a company’s success, or that they can’t share their expertise as independent board directors and advisors.
 
There appears to be a mix of scenarios across the corporate world with respect to defining age limits for senior executives and board members. Many founders stay on as long as they like, provided that they are adequately serving their companies and meeting the expectations of stakeholders. With an added focus on diversity, many companies are requiring more representation, which can be achieved by increasing the number of directors on the board or implementing term limits to ensure more churn. If corporations are moving toward adding age limits to their bylaws, are we limiting diversity of thought and or losing experts because they are over the age limit? It’s time to make sure all voices are represented so we can take advantage of the experience and deep knowledge that our retirees offer. A trend toward age limits for board participation does not allow for all voices to be represented.
 
Are we suboptimizing corporate outcomes or failing to identify enterprise risks when we do not value the experience and knowledge of later-stage executives?  Our hypothesis is that, with people living longer, there is an opportunity to engage seasoned directors more holistically so they can contribute meaningfully. It is time to rethink ageism in corporate boardrooms to ensure we have all voices represented. We must take advantage of the deep experience and expertise that is not being tapped.
 
Beverly Cole is chief executive officer of Cole Renwick LLC and serves on the Federal Reserve Board of San Francisco’s Economic Advisory Council and the board of directors of the NACD’s Pacific Southwest chapter. She is a board member of Bank OZK and private equity firm Founders First Capital Partners.
 
Judith Schrecker, retired CFO of Alcoa Global Rolled Products, currently serves as audit chair and a member of the compensation committee for NASDAQ company Clearsign Technologies. She is also on the board of Exceptional Women Awardees as board secretary and chair of development. Prior to her current roles, Schrecker served on the boards of Finacity Inc. and Dress for Success Worldwide.

Both Cole and Schrecker are Exceptional Women Awardees.

 


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