It’s an unusual time in labor history, with unprecedented attrition across all industries despite rising wages. In the US alone, more than a third of all workers left or changed jobs in 2021, up from 25% in 2020 and twice as many as a decade ago.
Workers enjoy greater bargaining power today than they have for generations. Some companies, in the midst of an escalating talent war, are redefining the employer-worker contract. They put aside long-held assumptions about how, where and even why people work, striving to better understand the motivations of their workforce. They recognize that leaders must inspire and interact with their teams in new ways to keep people engaged and productive.
Yet leaders at other companies struggle to meet ever-changing expectations, usually due to outdated perspectives and experiences. Gen Z employees, for example, report vastly different workforce preferences than their predecessors. A third said they would forego a pay rise for more flexibility, according to Mercer’s 2022 Global Talent Trends Report. Two-thirds said they believe their job ‘defines who they are’ and look to their career for purposewhile two-thirds said they expect their CEO to speak out publicly on political and social issues.
A potential solution to help organizations modernize their approach to worker retention and engagement is a “shadow board” – a cross-sectional group of non-executives in the company who work directly with the leadership team to weigh in and provide feedback on corporate strategy.
In recent years, companies have used shadow boards for a number of reasons: to bridge the gap between management teams and younger customers or to serve as leadership development programs – often with a focus on diverse young talents.
But in today’s environment, shadow boards can also be effective tools for management to take the pulse of an organization and build a stronger employer-worker relationship. When consulted on a range of management topics and empowered to share honest challenges, shadow boards can have immediate, tangible and sometimes unexpected impacts.
There are three areas where shadow boards can be particularly effective in strengthening the employer-worker bond. To do this, they regularly answer three key questions that management teams frequently face:
What do my teams need and want? Attracting and retaining talent above all. As organizations rethink their labor standards and try to maintain a competitive value proposition for workers, shadow boards can provide honest and direct feedback on what really moves the needle. Shadow boards are much more likely to understand the sentiment on the pitch, including uncovering hard truths that management may be blind to.
When and how can I weigh in as a leader? Ghostboards are also well suited for dealing with communication issues. Particularly at a time when leadership teams are expected to speak out on social issues, shadow boards can be invaluable resources for gauging when the time is right to speak up and testing which message will resonate best.
How can I align strategy with our values, in a way that resonates internally and externally? Shadow boards can even help align brand values, strategy, and management. A well-constructed shadow board can be an excellent representation of a company’s values and can weigh in with unusual insight into strategic direction and alignment with those values. Ghost boards can also bring a fresh perspective to brand positioning and provide creative ideas for reaching new audiences.
Of course, while the concept of a shadow board may seem simple, creating one for maximum impact isn’t. A carefully structured selection process, the right tone from management, and a trust-based environment to encourage open and honest feedback are just some of the ingredients needed for success.
If they get the model right, companies can use shadowboards to build more agile and effective leadership by exposing senior executives to broader sets of perspectives, while building culture and meaning for workers.
How to motivate a workforce?
At global consultancy Oliver Wyman, we encounter the same labor issues faced by many of our clients and test a variety of new remedies. In an industry that typically attracts high achievers looking to “accelerate” their careers, changing attitudes towards work have forced us to fundamentally rethink how we engage and motivate our workforce. Getting it right is key; after all, our product is our people, so attracting and retaining top talent is non-negotiable.
Last year, our new CEO was eager to boost worker engagement and was ready to get creative with figuring out how to do it. It instituted a shadow board in early 2021 – and it already far exceeds our expectations.
Our shadow board plays two important roles. First, the group provides input prior to executive committee meetings on nearly every topic brought to the attention of the leadership team. As such, our shadow board has the opportunity to highlight important blind spots, offer new and creative solutions to stubborn challenges, and bridge the gap that sometimes leaves leadership isolated from the on-the-ground experiences of its colleagues.
Second, each year the group selects an initiative that harnesses the collective energy of the board to have a visible impact on the business. Although feedback provided to the leadership team often remains confidential, the initiative is an important way to amplify the group’s impact on the organization and energize the business.
Feedback from our inaugural Shadow Board led to a major global employee value proposition overhaul program, a new global employee recognition program and changes to our performance incentive system, among other improvements . At the same time, shadow board members are offered a front row seat for management decisions and have benefited personally and professionally from the experience.
Our experience shows the potential of shadow boards to help companies improve their corporate culture. If they get the model right, companies can use shadowboards to build more agile and effective leadership by exposing senior executives to broader sets of perspectives, while building culture and meaning for workers.