Jackie Joyner-Kersee & Co. – the colourful birds on German supervisory boards

Veteran managers are increasingly being joined by dazzling personalities from the worlds of sport, politics and civil society. But are the newcomers really driving forces – or just fig leaves?

The older ones among you will know them: Former world-class athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee has sat on Adidas’ supervisory board since the annual general meeting in May. This is the first mandate for the 59-year-old, who supports children and young people with her foundation. Supervisory Board Chairman Thomas Rabe justified Joyner-Kersee’s nomination with her “many years of experience in the US sports market”.

The appointment represents an exciting trend: companies are turning to experts who would not have stood a chance just a few years ago. Bayer, for example, appointed Ertharin Cousin, the former head of the World Food Program, to its supervisory board. And Covestro hired Lise Kingo, the former director of the UN Global Compact (an initiative for corporate sustainability).

After new additions such as design researcher Gesche Joost (SAP) or agency founder Fränzi Kühne (Freenet) had long been rare exceptions, surprises are now almost the order of the day. Supervisory board leaders, it seems, are taking diversity to the next level. It’s no longer just about “more women”, but also about competencies outside the usual spectrum.

Is there a “supervisory board within a supervisory board”?

That’s good, because supposed exotics like Jackie Joyner-Kersee open up new perspectives and stimulate debates. But the question is: Is the phalanx of veteran managers that newcomers usually face genuinely interested in their perspectives? Or do “colourful birds” serve as fig leaves with which supervisory boards conceal their “business as usual”?

We are especially skeptical where the phalanx is particularly strong. Of course: Experienced managers are and remain elementarily important for every supervisory body. But if too many hold office for too long, there is a growing danger of a “supervisory board within a supervisory board” that shuts itself off from new impulses. This is particularly true when the former CEO is at the helm.

In such cases, the task must now be to rebalance the balance of power. And that means gradually replacing veteran members of the phalanx with younger managers, entrepreneurs and experts who are more open to new impulses. Because only then can “colorful birds” enrich the supervisory boards.