THE BLOG

Gen Y in the Boardroom

28/06/2013 16:05 BST | Updated 28/06/2013 16:05 BST

Generation Y's entrepreneurs have received well-deserved publicity of late, most notably Nick D'Aloisio's sale of Internet start-up Summly to Yahoo! And HuffPo has led the way in showcasing the full breadth of Gen Y talent from the catwalk to the kitchen. But there's another place where Gen Y leaders are also starting to make a big impact: the corporate boardroom.

As globalisation speeds up, customer expectations shift, and the impact of social media rises, the global market place is now more complex than ever before. Businesses that want to stay ahead of the competition - especially in customer-facing sectors like retail, media and finance - need Gen Y to help them understand and respond to the big trends that are already shaping the future: understanding tomorrow's customers; responding to the desire for more responsible business; and gaining a competitive edge in emerging markets.

Following the global financial crisis an irreversible (and positive) shift has taken place: we all now expect business and management to be done differently, and done better. Businesses from banks to supermarkets are having to re-define their values and become more transparent, accountable and sustainable. Such changes range from Marks & Spencer's "Plan A" (which overhauls every aspect of their business model) to efforts like TheCityUK's Next Generation Vision, the UK financial services sector's Gen Y-led plan to reshape their industry. Havas' Global CEO David Jones explains it best in his best-selling book "Who Cares Wins": "for business, the price of doing well is doing good". Gen Y has grown up with, and instinctively understands, this new thinking, and is best placed to lead the change from the top. For us, the world has moved on from Milton Friedman's famous quip that "the business of business is business".

Rapid cultural change has been matched (and driven by) rapid technological and demographic change. Today's consumers are heavily influenced by social media, which has given them more access to information about how companies do business than ever before. If the industrial revolution gave power to corporates, the digital revolution has empowered the consumer. As Jones says, "...there's not been another time in history when the youngest people understood the most about what is going on in the world". Companies that fail to respond to Gen Y's desire for good business, like BP and HMV (where the marketing director's helplessness and ignorance of Twitter started trending) find their brands tarnished and their valuations plummeting. Generation Y business leaders can add value by acting as cultural translators, helping their colleagues navigate the new business environment. That's why, for example, Starbucks appointed Clara Shih, then 29, to its board, hoping she would "bring fresh insight" to their business.

As traditional models of business leadership break down, demand for Gen Y leaders who understand these changes will only rise. Globalisation has created increasingly complex decision-making environments which require new skill sets and fresh perspectives that were simply not around when many of today's board room executives entered the labour market. Simply accumulating decades of experience in a corporate silo no longer means you will become a successful leader. In the fast-paced, digitally-enabled, multi-cultural and multi-lingual market place, every company now needs to balance Gen X's experience with Gen Y's dynamism, inherently global outlook, digital aptitude and understanding of responsible business. And adding a Generation Y perspective, as Cambridge University Alumni Advisory Board (on which I serve) has done, can be a powerful antidote to age-related groupthink in an era when the world is getting younger.

Alongside Starbucks and Cambridge, Havas, one of the world's leading global advertising, communications and digital groups, have led the way in empowering Generation Y. Together with David Jones, Kate Robertson (Havas Worldwide's UK Group Chairman), founded One Young World, an annual summit that brings together 1500 Gen Y leaders from 190 countries which CNN dubbed the "junior Davos". Last year, Kate Robertson also appointed me to her Board, working with six market-leading UK group companies. And harnessing the skills and talents of Gen Y is a trend that's already being noticed at the highest levels: the Financial Times and Telefonica are hosting a series of Millennial Leadership Summits (I spoke at the London Summit earlier this month), whilst the World Economic Forum (famous for its annual Davos summit) has set up a task force to examine new leadership models. The UK's Institute of Directors has seen its young directors forum grow in prominence, whilst younger directors are increasingly found working at board level in schools (school governors), charities (like school breakfast club charity, Magic Breakfast), local government (a Kent council elected a 22-year-old Conservative as its youngest councillor last year) and of course SMEs and start-ups, especially in the technology sector (like new "click and collect" pioneer StreetHub).

Peter Cave-Gibbs, one of London's leading headhunters, sums it up by saying, "Age is just a number in business now. At Board level, Chairmen are looking for outstanding leaders who can help them succeed in today's global marketplace. Gen Y business talent is highly educated, multi-lingual, and comfortable with change and technology. This generation will change the way business is done forever."