- "Shadow advisory boards" are groups of employees who work with senior execs on initiatives.
- Organizations typically view them as means of gaining insights and input from younger workers.
- Oliver Wyman says its shadow board helped contribute to a 30% reduction in attrition in 2022.
Andrew Pérez is 24 years old and started working at the management-consulting company Oliver Wyman three years ago. He already has a direct say in how the company runs.
Pérez can even text the head of financial services whenever he wants.
That's because Pérez, who graduated from Harvard in the thick of the pandemic, serves on the company's "shadow advisory board," which gives him access to the firm's senior leaders. The 20-person board — officially called the Global Leadership Team Council — is made up of employees below the executive or director level and runs parallel to the firm's executive board.
Shadow-council meetings can stretch on for hours, as its members go through discussions of initiatives, everything from the firm's values to employee policies to how and when leadership ought to weigh in on current events and social issues.
Meetings are heavy on the hand-raise function on Zoom, according to Pérez. After they conclude, members have 24 hours to offer any additional comments via email.
Coming out of COVID-19 lockdowns, for instance, the leadership team wanted to set up a formal program to recognize outstanding employees. The council guided the development of an easy-to-use peer-to-peer system, rather than some elaborate top-down program.
The resulting platform, Kudos, is accessible to every employee and has minimal management intervention. An Oliver Wyman official said the company considered Kudos a success, with nearly 60% of employees at the firm receiving a reward and small monetary compensation over the past 18 months.
Shadow boards are a prime example of how some employers — which are struggling with how to retain younger workers — are offering employees a stronger voice in their organizations. Gen Z, in particular, is a group that prioritizes having a say in their workplaces. When done correctly, the results can be transformative: Oliver Wyman said its council helped contribute to a 30% reduction in attrition in 2022.
"It's getting to see the inner workings and the insides of Oliver Wyman in a unique way," Pérez said. "I get to see what a career here could actually look like."
Getting younger workers in the room where it happens
"Whether a company is trying to test-drive internally the reactions to a policy or predict the next great product, these boards can often be a benefit to organizations," Anita Williams Woolley, a professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business, told Insider.
Shadow boards can also help increase worker retention, Woolley said.
"It shows that the organization cares about the things you care about and cares about you," she said. "Giving feedback and making recommendations — those can be a motivator."
Oliver Wyman started its shadow board in 2021. Members of the council are appointed for one year and not paid for their service. Any employee who's been with the company for a year and is not an executive or director is eligible to apply.
Mariya Rosberg, the head of Americas corporate and institutional banking at Oliver Wyman who chairs the shadow board, told Insider that the council looked similar to the employee composition of the firm in terms of ages, nationalities, backgrounds, and professional experiences.
"We have lifers, new hires, people who are in small satellite offices and those hub offices — we want it to reflect our company," she said.
Oliver Wyman's executive team tends to be older, while the shadow board skews younger and more diverse.
"We wanted to get a very real pulse on how colleagues are getting and assessing messages from leadership," Rosberg said. "People want to feel their company is aligned to their values, and getting that communication right is quite helpful — there's a lot of value in getting perspectives from people that are just otherwise not in the room."
There are some caveats. If shadow-board members invest time and energy in new ideas and policies only to have the organization fail to adopt them, the strategy can backfire.
"It can be worse than not being asked at all," Woolley said.
What's more, if board members are being asked to do additional work without any acknowledgement or compensation, it could be considered just another "nonpromotable task," or labor that benefits the organization but not an individual's career. Research has found that women, especially women of color, tend to get asked to do more of this kind of work.
"You don't want this to turn this into one more thing people are not recognized and rewarded for," Woolley said.
Patricia Romero, a millennial who heads external affairs for Europe at Oliver Wyman, is at a stage in her career where she's looking toward leadership roles and what that might entail. She was eager to join the shadow board last year.
For her, it's meant getting access to a female mentor and having the opportunity to weigh in on climate issues, something she's passionate about.
"It's also about giving me more confidence to reach out to different people in the firm and really understanding our DNA, how we operate, and what makes us tick," she said.
Romero thinks shadow boards can signal, especially during layoffs, that a firm values worker input, she said.
For instance, the company relaunched its values this year, Romero said, "with a focus on really listening to what was important to the whole firm." She said the Global Leadership Team Council had a major part in that.
Nudging management for transparency and accountability
The first time Pérez spoke at a council meeting, he said it felt like an Eminem song: His palms were sweaty, and his arms were weak as he constantly wondered if his camera was right or whether he was muted.
In college, he was active in extracurricular activities, with a focus on first-generation and low-income students like himself. But as someone early in his career, he said he was still nervous to speak up at the first meeting — held on Zoom, as they usually are. After he asked his question, he got validation from his colleagues — it was, indeed, a good question. And that's when he felt like he was getting the hang of it.
Pérez said he had disagreed with higher-up members during reviews and challenges but that's "the point."
"It's called review and challenge for a reason. It's not review and pass," he said. "And I think that is because we are going to be challenging them, and there is going to be disagreements, but I never have felt as if I walked away from a meeting angry."
To date, the council has offered advice and input on roughly 60 measures, from CEO messaging to how the company should restructure the firm's promotion process for partners.
The group tends to nudge management for more transparency, accountability, and feedback, according to Rosberg.
"It's de facto become a body that's focused on the accountability of our leadership," she said.