How to Bridge Generational Divides in the Boardroom

When Anett Grant completed her theater education more than three decades ago, she was encouraged by corporate executives and business groups to start a presentation business. After learning the ins and outs of communication in the corporate world, she soon realized that her background in theater, writing, voice and performance training would help her develop a career in executive coaching, and she eventually started her own business, Executive Speaking Inc. Now, Grant helps clients improve their communication so they can project their leadership.

Explain your “sandwich approach” to connect generational divides in the workplace.
When presenting to their board, or any other diverse audience, leaders must continuously transition from concept to details in bite-size pieces. The key to communicating today’s exploding complexities is not about dumbing it down and minimizing, but rather about elevating and organizing. Before descending into the granular, leaders have to create hierarchies of information — what I call the sandwich approach. For example, some board members just want to know the concept — what kind of a sandwich is it? Then the next group wants to know about the details (the fillings). Then some want to know about the details of the details (condiments). Then some may even want to know about the details of the details of the details (the molecular structure of each ingredient).

By implementing the sandwich approach, leaders can keep their diverse board members engaged. The sandwich approach also helps board members feel smart. Champions of the new have to remember the goal of the board meeting is not to present an awesome display of the bright and shining, but a clear business case for decision-making.

What are the biggest challenges for company leaders right now?
One of the biggest challenges leaders face is the ubiquitous nature of their communication — and the speed is only accelerating. Compared to 30 years ago, CEOs and leaders today have to continuously communicate to all levels of their organization, in real time, and in more complex media than ever before — simulcast, YouTube, Skype, etc.— and those communications can change the course of daily operations. The environment for communication has become noisier — there are messages everywhere all the time. To cut through that noise and be immediately compelling is an unprecedented challenge.

Another one of the challenges leaders face is to transmit values and vision globally. Now more than ever, companies see the need to integrate more in cultures where parts of their business like manufacturing or distributing or sales may be located. They must become part of the fabric of those countries, even if the business is headquartered in the U.S. or elsewhere. Company leaders have to engage a global audience, made up of people with multicultural backgrounds. Even with a common language, an English-speaking person from the U.S. is quite different from an English-speaking person from the U.K. or from urban India or rural India. Leaders can’t assume common experiences.

Give us more insight into generational divides and how they can cause commotion in the boardroom.
One of my clients, the new CEO of a large real estate investment company, put it best when he came to me worried that a lack of gray hair would impact board presentations. He asked me, “How do I deal with the challenge of helping my board transition from the last CEO — who was 60 years old, bigger, and had gray hair — to me, somebody who has a much more youthful appearance?” His concern was personal, but the issue of age in the board room goes beyond cosmetics.

As boards continue to age, the biggest problem connected to generational divides is disconnection on complicated issues of the new — the new social media, the new technology, the new millennials, the new globalization.

Today’s leaders have to keep the focus on the business case, versus getting sidetracked in the buzz of excitement, the barrage of analytics and the trendlines of uncertainty. Simultaneously, leaders need to keep board members up to speed with the new in this time of unprecedented urgency and escape velocity. Without adjusting for the ways different generations of business leaders absorb these concepts, these generational divides threaten to become chasms, and leaders must face the challenges of bridging these gaps head on.

How can companies foster collaborative communication amongst all age groups?
Businesses have underestimated the cost of going global. It isn’t just about building new factories or moving business around. Going global requires bringing people from all around the world together, and that’s expensive.

To get diverse groups to work together, companies need to foster cooperative relationships, which require face-to-face communication. Technologies like Skype or Facetime can help and are very useful once the foundation of a relationship has been built. However, if companies want to foster collaborative communication globally or amongst age groups, they must prioritize in-person communication.

You can’t ever replace face-to-face communication. Sometimes what we say isn’t as important as the feelings we convey while communicating. People connect on a rhythmic level in terms of nonverbal communication of feelings. Without this connection, it is impossible to build relationships. Without relationships, you can’t get spontaneous communication that is productive. I think people need to meet in person a little more frequently. It may seem strange that I’m not advocating more social media communication, email or texting. Those communication tools have their place, but what the older generation has to do is help the younger generation understand the power of in-person communication. Young professionals need to learn the value of personal relationships that can translate into mentoring, understanding and career advancement.

Jennifer Kahn is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. She can be reached at?