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In Practice

How to Attract and Retain Workers With ‘Shadow Boards’

A diverse group of employees sit at a table in lively discussion.

This is an unusual moment in the history of labor, with unprecedented attrition across all industries despite rising wages. In the United States alone, more than a third of all workers left or changed jobs in 2021, up from 25% in 2020 and twice the rate experienced a decade ago. 

Workers today enjoy more bargaining power than they have in generations. Some companies, amid an intensifying war for talent, are redefining the employer-worker contract. They are setting 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 need to inspire and relate to their teams in new ways to keep people engaged and productive. 

Yet leaders of other companies are struggling to meet evolving expectations, usually because of outdated perspectives and experiences. Gen Z employees, for example, report vastly different workforce preferences from their predecessors. One-third said they would forego a pay increase for additional flexibility, according to the 2022 Mercer Global Talent Trends Report. Two-thirds said they believe their work “defines who they are” and look to their career for purpose, while two-thirds said they expect their CEO to speak out publicly about political and social issues.

One potential solution to help organizations modernize their approach to worker retention and engagement is a “shadow board” — a representative group of non-executives across the firm who work directly with the leadership team to weigh in and provide feedback on firm strategy.

In recent years, companies have used shadow boards for a number of reasons: to bridge the gap between leadership teams and more youthful customers or to serve as leadership development programs — often with a focus on young, diverse talent.  

But in today’s environment, shadow boards can also be efficient tools for management to test the pulse inside an organization and build a stronger employer-worker connection. 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 in which shadow boards can be particularly effective at strengthening the employer-worker connection. They do this by regularly answering three key questions commonly faced by leadership teams:

What do my teams need and want? First and foremost is attracting and retaining talent. As organizations rethink their workplace norms and try to maintain a competitive worker value proposition, shadow boards can provide honest, direct feedback on what truly moves the needle. Shadow boards are much more likely to understand the sentiment on the ground, including uncovering hard truths management may be blind to.  

When and how do I weigh in as a leader? Shadow boards are also well-suited to deal with communications issues. Particularly in an age when management teams are expected to opine on social issues, shadow boards can be invaluable resources to gauge when the time is right to speak out and to test which message will best resonate.  

How do I align strategy to our values, in a way that resonates internally and externally? Shadow boards can even help with aligning values, strategy and brand management. A properly constructed shadow board can be an excellent representation of a company’s values and can weigh in with unusual insight on strategic direction and alignment to these values. Shadow boards can also bring a fresh perspective to brand positioning and provide creative ideas for reaching new audiences.  

To be sure, while the concept of a shadow board might seem simple, setting one up for maximum impact is not. A carefully structured selection process, the right tone from the top, and a trust-based environment to encourage open, honest feedback are just some of the necessary ingredients for success.  

If they get the model right, companies can use shadow boards to build more agile and effective leadership by exposing top managers to wider sets of perspectives — all while strengthening culture and a sense of meaning for workers. 

How Do You Motivate a Workforce?

At global consulting firm Oliver Wyman, we are experiencing the same labor challenges many of our clients are facing — and are testing a variety of new remedies. In an industry that typically attracts high achievers seeking to “fast track” their careers, changing attitudes about work have required us to fundamentally rethink how we engage and motivate our workforce. It is essential that we get this right; after all, our product is our people, so attracting and retaining top talent is non-negotiable.

Our new CEO last year was eager to strengthen worker engagement and was willing to be creative in considering how to do so. He instituted a shadow board in early 2021 — and it is already far exceeding our expectations.   

Our shadow board plays two important roles. First, the group provides feedback ahead of executive committee meetings on nearly all topics brought to the leadership team. In this capacity, our shadow board has the opportunity to surface important blind spots, offer new and creative solutions to stubborn challenges, and bridge the gap that sometimes leaves leadership isolated from colleagues’ on-the-ground experiences. 

Second, each year, the group selects one initiative that harnesses the collective energy of the council to make a visible impact on the firm. While feedback provided to the leadership team often remains confidential, the initiative is an important way to amplify the impact the group has on the organization and energize the firm. 

The feedback from our inaugural shadow board has led to a significant global program to redesign the employee value proposition, a new global employee recognition program, and changes to our performance incentive system, among other improvements. At the same time, members of the shadow board are offered a front-row seat to management decisions and have benefited personally and professionally from the experience.  

Our experience shows the potential shadow boards have to help companies improve their workplace cultures. If they get the model right, companies can use shadow boards to build more agile and effective leadership by exposing top managers to wider sets of perspectives — all while strengthening culture and a sense of meaning for workers.

Mariya Rosberg

Partner at Oliver Wyman

Mariya Rosberg is a Partner and Head of Oliver Wyman’s Americas Corporate and Institutional Banking practice in New York. Mariya has over 20 years of experience serving leading investment and universal banks in the US, Europe, and Latin America as both a consultant with Oliver Wyman and as an internal strategist. She also serves as Chair of the firm’s Global Leadership Team (GLT) Council. The Council is a diverse group of non-Partner colleagues who work alongside the firm’s Global Leadership Team to provide input and offer perspectives on the firm’s vision, strategy, and operations.

Christina Kyriakides

Principal at Oliver Wyman

Christina Kyriakides is a Principal in the digital practice in the Americas at Oliver Wyman.

Shamarah Hernandez

Lead at Oliver Wyman Forum

Shamarah Hernandez is a strategy lead at the Oliver Wyman Forum, the firm’s think tank. 

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