Is it worth joining a shadow board?

Dec 15, 2022

4 mins

Is it worth joining a shadow board?
Lorraine Posthuma

Freelance translator and journalist

It might sound like something from Dungeons and Dragons, but joining a shadow board doesn’t involve role playing in a game of fantasy – and it might even help your career. A shadow board is a group of employees who work with senior executives helping them to get a fresh perspective and to develop initiatives. Typically, the shadow or mirror board is made up of young workers who aren’t in management. So is this a great opportunity to gain valuable experience and boost your career? Or is it just another way for companies to squeeze more out of young professionals? We spoke to three shadow board members and an expert in the topic to find out.

The concept of a shadow board has been around for some time now. Jack Welch, the famed business leader and former chief executive of General Electric (GE), dreamt up the shadow board in the early 2000s. He saw it as building on the reverse mentoring system he had developed some years before, which paired senior and junior employees so that the younger ones could teach their older colleagues about technological advances and tools. An effective shadow board should offer insight, feedback, and new ideas to senior executives. The members can present their generation’s perspective and also learn more about the organization’s strategies and decision-making processes. Ideally, everyone benefits.

Being on a shadow board can be a valuable opportunity for a young professional, according to Dirk Buyens, a professor at the Vlerick Business School in Belgium and co-author of Shadow Boards in Talent Management. Buyens doesn’t view it as a form of exploitation even though shadow board members don’t get any additional pay. “They were willing to do it, and being selected to be on a shadow board is recognition in itself,” he says.

Buyens sees it as a chance for employees to find out whether they would like to be part of the executive, whether they excel at management, and how well they work with their peers. It will also look good on any resume.

Shadow boards thrive when sponsored by the chief executive, especially when they play an active part for example, by interviewing and interacting with the members, according to Buyens. “Support from the top down is important. If the CEO has implemented a shadow board but then leaves the company, the shadow board usually goes with that CEO,” he says.

It can be hard to find American companies with shadow boards, but a number of European ones, such as Gucci, AccorHotels, KPMG, and Version 1 have them. Tanya Matthews, Justin Hillis, and Colm Keaveney joined the shadow board at Version 1 in June 2021, completing their time as members in December 2022.

How it worked out

There was plenty for them to do. The shadow board members produced videos explaining how shadow boards work, took part in coffee mornings for junior employees hired during the pandemic, and gave their views to the executives on the pay and benefits offered by the company. Keaveney says that the group also gave feedback to the executive board on issues they were concerned about, such as recruitment and attrition.

Matthews says she believes all their ideas were given consideration, though not all were used. She says, “Some ideas or feedback have been really successful and have been implemented. Some ideas weren’t implemented, however, [and] that has also been a valuable lesson.”

Top executives on the board must be willing to listen to the ideas of shadow board members, according to Buyens. They don’t need to make all the changes suggested, but they should make a commitment to being open and reviewing the ideas generated from the shadow board. “If management can’t live or cope with a shadow board, it will die quickly,” he says.

Getting mentored

At Version 1, each member of the shadow board had a mentor from the senior executive team for one-to-one coaching. Matthews appreciated the personal development. She learned how to approach difficult conversations with confidence, which she had seen as a weakness of hers.

Hillis says he gained a greater understanding of the company’s challenges and the many considerations that go into driving growth. “The best thing has been the vast exposure to areas of the business that I otherwise wouldn’t have had,” he says. Hillis expanded his internal network as did Keaveney, who had the chance to build rapport and exchange ideas with people he might not have met otherwise.

Hillis adds that thinking you understand another person’s concerns is very different from sitting down with them and talking to them. He says, “If you can identify and empathize with the people who will be affected by a new initiative and try to understand their concerns about the way something is done at the moment, then you are liable to have a more positive outcome.”

Promotion prospects

While on the board, Matthews was promoted and she believes being a member has given her career advancement opportunities. Hillis moved into a new role while on the board. Keaveney hasn’t been promoted yet, but he believes it will help with his career progression.

This expectation is normal, according to Buyens. “Many members expect to move up within the company after being on the shadow board,” he says. If management doesn’t promote former members of the shadow board, they may become frustrated and leave the company, Buyens says.

Taking stock

Being a shadow board member is a big commitment. Keaveney says, “I spent six months in the chairperson’s role. It was tricky to balance that with my day job at times, but I got great value from the whole process. It also challenged me to delegate responsibility to my colleagues, which was something I never really had to do before.”

Version 1’s shadow board members say they learned a lot during their time on the board. Hillis says, “The most engaged members of the group have definitely seen the most benefit.” Keaveney agrees. “You truly get out what you put in. The more time and effort you dedicate to shadow board initiatives, the more you learn and develop,” he says. “By just being involved and learning from senior leadership, you are putting yourself in a great position to advance your career in the future.” All three say that the experience was worth it. According to Keaveney, “The senior executives will tell you they received great benefit from the shadow board, which is fantastic to hear, but I have no doubt that we’re the ones benefiting more.”

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