Ask Athena: Am I too old to serve on a board?

As professional women in a male-dominated space, it’s easy to question whether we deserve or belong in a leadership role. Aspiring board members often count themselves out because they feel like they don’t fit the mold. For some, their stumbling block may be their age. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Am I too old to serve on a board?”, keep reading: you’re in the right place.

The short answer is no — you are not too old to serve! Older board directors generally have more experience, stronger intuition, a vaster network, and more time to dedicate towards their service. However, keep in mind that to position yourself competitively with younger aspiring board members, you need to consider what unique strength you can offer to the board that offsets your age being seen as a drawback.

Before we share actionable tips to launch your board journey at any age, let’s run through some stats.

70% of S&P boards have a mandatory retirement age that lies between 72 and 75 years old. You may want to consider how long you would be able to serve before you’re expected to step down. Spencer Stuart notes that “With independent directors averaging 63 years of age, most S&P 500 directors have years of potential service before reaching mandatory retirement.”

It may also be helpful to compare your age against that of the average director currently serving on their board. The average age of a new S&P independent director is 58. Based on these statistics, younger baby boomers will fit right in with most boardrooms. Take a look at the existing board directors and what age groups are represented. If there are primarily younger directors, there may be a need for a more seasoned voice in the boardroom.

Regardless, we need to be shifting the focus away from what’s normal and accepted and towards the direction we hope to progress in. Just like how current boards don’t reflect the gender diversity that Athena seeks to achieve, most boards also don’t have enough diversity of skill sets, races, cultures, or ages.

Since board directors have an average tenure of 8 years, existing board members will most likely be of older age, providing experience and wisdom to the organization. As a result, many modern organizations are seeking to appoint younger people to curate a board reflective of different ages, values, and strengths. Getting a board seat as an older woman won’t be easy, but that shouldn’t stop you.

We’ve gathered four actionable strategies to help you maximize your chances.

Rather than focusing on age, consider whether your skills would be an asset to each of the boards you hope to serve on. Reflect upon the organization’s goals and vision, and whether existing board members have the appropriate experiences and talents to move forward.

If you see an opportunity gap you can fill, take advantage of it! It could be the vast network that you’ve built over time, which would certainly showcase the strengths of being an older board member. Or, it could be your expertise in technological innovation, which would invalidate most assumptions about older board candidates. Whatever it is, finding the best match between your skillset and the board’s needs is what’s most important. Let your expertise shine, and any doubts about your age fall into the background.

Additionally, observe the current diversity of the boards you hope to serve on, and assess whether you offer an underrepresented perspective. Does the board lack female directors? People of color? A director over the age of 65? In the modern world, a diversified boardroom is more important than ever. It is critical that organizations take a step back and determine which voices need to be amplified. Perhaps your age is a much-needed asset to a younger board in need of an experienced leader.

Finally, keep on top of recent trends and innovations. To stay relevant in the rapidly advancing business world, you must be a forward-looking thinker and agile leader. COVID-19 taught us that every one of us is capable of adapting to technological change on short notice. Even if you are not currently serving in an operating role, you should continue thinking critically about how your expertise in the C-suite is relevant for today’s business world. Athena’s Virtual Salons, for example, are held two- to three times a week to help our aspiring board directors and very experienced board directors stay up to date on governance trends and best practices.

You may notice that your board documents — your board CV, board bio, or your LinkedIn — need a refresh. Working with a professional executive resume writer can ensure that your documents are in the most modern formats, meet the latest standards, and help you stand out against the competition. While you may bring incredible experience to the table, it’s important to be aware that there are many other executives vying for board seats who have recent and polished documents. You may also consider partnering with a board selection coach to get a refresher on trends, practice for your interview, and more.

Never discredit yourself for a board role because of your age. Many boards would gladly welcome the value you bring as an older board member. But, you should also be aware of board mandates and be realistic about which boards and opportunities will be right for you given your age and experience. The wisdom, vast experience, and expertise you’ve gathered throughout your career can help ensure boards function and flourish in an ever-changing world.

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