How young executives are changing boardrooms amid a skills shortage

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At the highest levels of business, there is a significant shift underway. Aspiring young executives are getting their shot far earlier than ever before, and not only within the ranks of the micro to small cap businesses on the ASX. 

Stuart Tonkin was appointed as managing director of top 10 global gold miner Northern Star in July of this year. Bridget Loudon, at 32, was appointed to the Telstra board in 2020, and the most recent high-profile example of a young executive taking the reins in Western Australia was the promotion of Jessica Farrell to asset president of BHP’s Nickel West. Farrell, with 15-plus years of post-graduate experience replaced Eddy Haegal’s 15-plus years as an executive, accrued while working for BHP.  

Without a doubt, Farrell is a deserving candidate. She has an impressive resume of achievement and notable early career advancement. And based on comments from BHP Minerals Australia President Edgar Basdo, her leadership style was a key factor in her appointment. His announcement commended Farrell as an “accomplished and collaborative” leader capable of, “foster(ing) an inclusive culture and bring(ing) fresh energy and perspective…” an executive wish list echoed across Australian boardrooms. 

After a turbulent couple of years, companies have been forced to pivot; and so have the skills required at an executive level. This new corporate landscape favours the environmental, science and governance focus, and transparency, diversity and online presence matter more than ever. Skills that are typically — rightly or wrongly — associated with younger generations. 

The pursuit for the right culture fit has almost made executive experience redundant. One executive I’ve worked with, Chalice Mining’s Alex Dorsch, is another example. A drilling engineer a mere five years ago, Dorsch has now joined the ranks of the managing directors in the mining industry. 

But there is undoubtedly another factor driving this trend: the endlessly reported skills shortage.

Typically, the skills shortages we hear so much about relate to a different faction of the workforce — those jobs which exist in multiples within a company, rather than the one executive role. But the wave of activity onto the ASX has changed that, with new positions for executives being created in record numbers. There have been a record number of listings (63) in the first six months of 2021, overtaking the previous record in the peak IPO year of 2017 and far exceeding the first six months in 2020 (12). 

What are the outcomes of younger executives at the helm of businesses? I have seen the benefits of a younger leader in the boardroom. They encourage diversity in their businesses like I have not seen before. They are open minded, encouraging inclusion, looking at transferable talents and focused on people that are socially and environmentally conscious.

They recognise people want to work for businesses they believe in, which are truly going to do the right thing, and that people’s expectations of a workplace have changed. There is flexibility, autonomy and trust. 

On the flipside, there must also be some oversight. Undeniably when a company is appointing a younger executive, there must be an experienced and increasingly present board. These executives require mentorship from seasoned individuals happy to commit more time than may normally be considered part of a board position, to help them get up to speed. 

Overall, if the trend of the last 12 months is anything to go by, we can look forward to companies that are finally moving with the times, or at least being pushed to by young executives and the experienced boards behind them. 


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