At a time when millennials are advancing in the corporate world, some ACG chapters have recognized the untapped potential of their young members and are recruiting them for leadership positions.
Few chapters have added as many young professionals to their leadership ranks as ACG Detroit. Nearly 1 in 5 of the directors on the chapter’s board and almost half of its committee chairs have risen up through ACG Detroit’s NextGen program. In 2017, the chapter elected its youngest sitting president: Christopher Letts, a 34-year-old vice president of Morgan Stanley’s Pine Harbor Group.
Letts was active in the chapter’s NextGen program, so it’s no surprise that advocating for young professional programs has been a major focus during his tenure. But at one point, Lett’s eventual election to president seemed unlikely.
Despite the growing influence of millennials in the workplace, they initially met with resistance as they sought leadership roles in ACG Detroit, according to Letts. “At one point, millennial was very much a pejorative,” he explains, referring to the generation born between 1981 and 1996.
When Letts joined ACG in 2011, there were few young professionals involved in Detroit’s chapter. At the Pine Harbor Group, Letts advises families about managing assets after selling their businesses, and he could see that ACG Detroit had a succession problem. “At the corporate or enterprise level, that might be fine,” he says. “But when it comes to organizations that rely on membership to maintain the existence of the organization and people start to retire, the organizations die.”
To respond to the problem, the chapter created a dedicated seat on its board and tasked it with attracting young members. In 2013, it introduced NextGen, a program that offers a discounted membership rate for middle-market professionals under the age of 35 and connects them with networking, educational, mentorship and leadership resources.
ACG Detroit soon began developing programming and organizing events to draw new members, but after two years, its efforts weren’t having much of an impact.
“It grossly underperformed our initial expectations,” says Letts, who was chairing the events committee at the time. But understanding why the strategy wasn’t working provided valuable insight. By selecting from within their own ranks, the ACG Detroit board had appointed a leader for the initiative who lacked experience engaging young professionals.
The board opted to change its approach. Instead of leading the program from the top down, they elected to run it from the bottom up, according to Letts. “The board said, ‘Okay, why don’t we select someone from the NextGen community who will bring in a representative voice and leadership style that the rest of our NextGen-ers will follow and engage with?’”
In 2015, Dan Ellis, a director at Townsend Search Group, was selected to lead the new initiative. Ellis built out a steering committee and brought on a vice chairman. Together, Ellis and the vice chairman organized events that catered to millennial members. In one year, the number of NextGen members doubled.
Since then, ACG Detroit’s NextGen membership has grown from around 40 to over 100. The young professionals’ increased involvement led many to take leadership roles within the organization and eventually paved the way for Letts to become president.
The strategy to appeal to younger professionals has benefited the chapter beyond just membership growth. ACG Detroit has been able to tap into the “natural hustle” of professionals early in their careers, which has become a valuable asset for the organization, says Letts, who was awarded a Meritorious Service Award at ACG’s InterGrowth conference in May. “Because most of our NextGen-ers don’t have children and many of them are unmarried, there’s not a lot going on that would restrict them from volunteering hours with an organization like ACG Detroit.”
Detroit is among many ACG chapters that have developed a pipeline for young professional leadership, but not all organizations followed a similar path.
Some, like ACG National Capital, didn’t set out with membership growth in mind. When the chapter officially launched its NextGen program in 2014, it positioned the group as a way to attract sponsors, according to Katie Newland, the chapter’s executive director.
The initiative was designed as a resource for existing ACG members and sponsors to help young professionals within their firms advance in their careers, but it was so well received that the chapter expanded it from a sponsor benefit to a program for all members.
From the group’s inception, ACG National Capital let those involved direct its course. The young professionals were empowered to develop programming and build up a peer network, Newland says. “We let them generate the topics and the makeup of the group.”
Each year, the NextGen group organizes five to six functions, which draw around 40 to 50 participants. But after five years, NextGen members have done more than just plan events. This year, three of the program’s participants joined ACG National Capital’s board of directors.
Kristina Wilmer, a senior vice president of Global Commercial Banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, currently serves on ACG National Capital’s board of directors. She joined NextGen in 2015 at the recommendation of her manager.
“NextGen gives you the ability to attend ACG meetings and conferences,” Willmer says. “I thought it was important to take advantage of it.”
After a few months of attending ACG events, Wilmer hadn’t yet moved from passive attendance to active participation. But that changed when she heard a speech from ACG National Capital’s president at the time, who encouraged members to get involved in the organization.
“I thought that was a great idea,” Wilmer says. “He said exactly what I believed: that the best way to get involved in ACG is to do more than just attend the breakfast. Give time to ACG and you’ll get much more in return.”
Wilmer began volunteering on the membership committee and became a full ACG member in 2017. Because of her involvement with the committee, the chapter invited her to join its board of directors in June 2018.
Wilmer isn’t alone. Another NextGen alumni, Fatima Rahyab, joined the board of directors around the same time as Wilmer. Both continue to work with NextGen and help develop events to drive engagement.
According to Newland, including the young professionals has helped strengthen the chapter’s programming and drive its strategic direction.
Wilmer hopes to continue developing the chapter’s NextGen program and increase its value to young professionals at a pivotal time in their lives.
“When I look at people within ACG who are much later in their careers than I am, the folks they’re doing deals with are the ones they met early on,” Wilmer says. “I also formed some really great relationships with people I met through NextGen, and that will pay dividends for years to come.
This story originally appeared in the July/August print edition of Middle Market Growth magazine. Read the full issue in the archive.
Benjamin Glick is ACG Global’s marketing and communications associate.