Your company needs a shadow board of young, non-executive talent

Ready to get to it.
Ready to get to it.
Image: REUTERS/Jason Reed
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If there’s anything this year has taught us, it is to expect the unexpected. It’ll be the maxim heard in every boardroom and executive-level meeting for the foreseeable future.

The two great inflection points of the year—the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement—have already upended the status quo and forced businesses to change their operations, their communications, and their diversity, equity, and inclusivity policies. Some moved fast, responding almost immediately in ways that were relevant to their customers and their employees. Others either lagged behind, missed the mark, or, particularly in response to the BLM movement, were paralyzed by indecision for fear of getting it wrong.

These crises have highlighted that, as business leaders, we were ill-prepared for sudden change. Uncertainties rendered us vulnerable. And the financial, social, and psychological fallout has been punishing, with companies like Hertz and J.Crew filing for bankruptcy due to the pandemic.

Perhaps we can never fully predict the future. But what if there were some way that we could better understand the present, so that it might offer insight into what will come next? A way for businesses to mitigate against further crises, disrupt the would-be disruptors, and gain the competitive edge?

QED the Shadow Board: a committee of rising employees who work with executives on strategic decision-making. Its purpose is to harness the hivemind of the non-executive employees, who are often younger and work in various different business units—and thus are more likely to offer new, diverse perspectives that today’s executives may not have considered. Versions of the Shadow Board have been employed by companies such as Accor, Gucci, GroupM India, Beazley Group, and even several small- to medium-sized businesses, to great effect.

Gucci in 2015 set up a “shadow comex”—a group of millennials from different functions, who played an important role in the brand’s digital transformation. CEO Marco Bizzarri attributes a part of the 99-year-old company’s profitable turnaround to how well young consumers have responded to the brand and its digital-first approach. Gucci saw sales surge by 136% from fiscal year 2014 to 2018, and, according to Interbrand’s Best Global Brands data, was the fastest-growing luxury brand of 2019.

Accor, the French hotel company, launched a similar shadow board of millennials and asked them to come up with inventive ways to reclaim the hospitality market share in the age of Airbnb. In 2018, the shadow board co-created the Jo&Joe brand—a new, affordable hostel experience targeted to millennials. The brand was a success and has ambitions of expanding to 50 sites around the world once the travel industry recovers.

These are telling examples of how shadow boards can help executive teams make sense of a world in perpetual change.

In 2020, other forces of change are at play. A recent analysis by YPulse and Morning Consult found that the majority of participants in the BLM protests were between the ages of 16 and 34. It also found that 39% of Gen X and baby boomers favor “brands that speak out against racism”—a stark contrast to the 73% of Gen Z and millennials who feel the same way.

Tomorrow’s CEOs

Protesters in the 16-to-34 age bracket are today’s most sought-after customers, and they’re potentially also tomorrow’s CEOs. And now, as customers have shown a largely disengaged response to how some brands have dealt with the BLM movement, perhaps senior executives ought to seek advice from their junior non-executives and call upon them to help their brands react to contemporary issues of social justice.

Do not mistake shadow boards as a crisis-mitigation function. This is about real commitment to people at the heart of everything you stand for, and everything you do. With exponential advancements in tech and the rapid socio-cultural shifts we’re witnessing, the leaders of tomorrow can advise the leaders of today on how to tackle challenges that the new decade will bring.

At Interbrand, we have launched our own committee, the “Horizon Board.” It’s a diverse, global collective of 10 of our rising talent, comprising six women and four men in seven cities across three continents. Their first board meeting happened to coincide as some of our Asia teams were already in lockdown, and some of Europe on the cusp of lockdown, but by design they were fully prepared to mobilize as a highly collaborative, virtual collective.

Interbrand's Horizon Board
Interbrand’s Horizon Board
Image: Courtesy of Interbrand

Two-way mentoring has become part of the shared value exchange, where board leaders, such as myself, coach and are coached by our Horizon Board members. They have access to an array of experts across our network, with the goal to share information across disciplines and generations. For both the leadership and the Horizon Board, the principle is to be exposed to people you might not otherwise work with, fostering creativity and encouraging lateral thinking.

Unearth the potential

As we live through this turbulent period, our Horizon Board is already co-creating Interbrand’s ambition and purpose for 2025 and beyond. Its members are forcing us to scrutinize and future-proof our strategy in order to inspire both the rising generation of talent, and the next generation of new, undiscovered talent.

The understanding and empathy of leaders has been truly put to the test this year. In this age of purpose, it’s essential to put that understanding and empathy to work. It’s about mobilizing for the greater good, in large part by challenging and changing from within.

The boardroom cannot continue to make executive decisions alone. The cultural diversity and neurodiversity potential in a next-generation Board is far too great to miss out on now, when the imperative to speak up, listen, and learn from others has never been more necessary.