What’s a shadow board and why are they rising in popularity?

The desire for businesses to maintain a healthy relationship with their younger customers, as well as employees, has led to a number of intriguing innovations as of late. One such example is that of the 'shadow board'. As Victoria Fox, CEO of marketing agency LIDA, explains, it's all about creating a strong connection with the next generation...

Think of 'the board' and you think of something isolated and intimidating, staffed only with senior suits. That’s precisely the image that marketing agency LIDA – whose clients include Land Rover, Boots and IKEA – didn’t want.

"We make most of our operational decisions at the actual board level," says CEO Victoria Fox. "But we felt like were missing the younger generation’s voice. They live in a quite different space to the one we grew up in. I think it's really important to have that millennial voice ratifying the decisions we're making and giving us a different perspective."

Board structure

So they set up a 'shadow' or 'mirror' board. Each year, around five young employees are elected to that board. The actual board sets them a task or a challenge, and the mirror board will then report back on the results directly to the actual board. They get to sit in on those meetings, so they have an increased understanding of what actually happens in the boardroom.

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It makes good business sense, says Victoria. "I am really keen that the board of the company I’m running isn't isolated. I think we have some very bright people, who are ambitious. But they also want to go quicker than we do! If they understand more about the running of the agency, they'll be thinking more laterally in their roles. It works for both sides.

"Running an agency is tricky. Clients are asking us for a lot with in a short space of time and with less budget. So we have to make some tough decisions. I think it's important to not shy away from that and make people understand what's going on – so, when they step up to their more senior roles, they've got that experience. Otherwise it's a bit of shock."

Feeding back

How does it work? One concern that came up to the board from employees was how to keep the intimate and informal feel of a smaller agency while expanding. The mirror board came up with a raft of initiatives to help with that.

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"When you listen to the voices of the mirror board, you find that working life isn’t so linear anymore," says Victoria. "People want to understand roles, to be more T-shaped, and we have to embrace that."

There’s now a monthly ‘Culture Club’, where a group of employees who might not know each other go to a cultural event, such as the recent Rolling Stones exhibition. They have also implemented a job swap, aimed at breaking down the barriers between different disciplines.

 

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Bonus benefits

The mirror board also serve as reverse mentors for board members. "I want to understand a different perspective," says Victoria. "My reverse mentor gives me insights into how to work in an agile way. I didn't necessarily grow up in that space."

And the mirror board also gets plenty out of their roles. For account manager Lydia Gadbury, it’s been a fascinating insight into how the business is run – and the challenges of leadership.

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"I’ve definitely gained a much deeper understanding of the decisions that need to be made and how they are considered. And I learn practical things as well. With the job swap, we had to consider setting something up, the implications of it, and how it might run and evolve. I’ve also really enjoyed having exposure of senior people who you don't work with on a day-to-day level.

"When you’re on the mirror board, you do get people coming up to you with ideas for changes or wanting to know why something’s been done. Because we have that exposure to the actual board we can help them understand why a change has been made. It's been fascinating to work on how to relay those changes to other people and to support the board in the decision they've made."

Top tip

If you’re thinking of setting up something similar, make sure you’re serious about it, advises Victoria. "It should never be just a PR stunt. You need to invest time into it. It’s been genuinely helpful for our business, though, and if you invest that time, you’ll get it back."

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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