A Nefarious Organization or Your Next Best Idea?

If you take a cross section of the firms in this industry, you’ll inevitably see a couple of things – they describe themselves as innovative, and say they truly care for their people. That’s one reason that so many of the strategic planning clients we work with want to win the Zweig Group Best Firms to Work for Award.

That said, when we interview the leadership, employees, and clients of these firms, a number of issues arise that make it seem like those are just buzzwords that sound good in marketing material. Many firms struggle with the challenges of having a disengaged younger staff and battling “the way we’ve always done things.” The constrained labor pool, the looming economic recession, and a perception that we are not doing what’s needed to elevate our professions in the increasingly evolving technological landscape, also lead to a weak response to changing market conditions. I’m sure if you took an honest look in the mirror at how you and your firm operate, these shortcomings may not just seem like someone else’s problem.

Well, here is your next great idea that may help tackle some of those seemingly unrelated challenges. Consider implementing a “Shadow Board of Directors.” This is a group of non-principal/executive level staff members that work with the principal or executive level leadership on strategic initiatives. What function does this “shadow board” serve? It solicits the younger staff’s insights and diversifies the perspectives the leadership of the firm is normally exposed to. Consider the staff development, employee engagement, mentoring opportunities, and ability to innovate if you have younger staff not only vying for a position on this board, but consistently thinking like a business leader with a real stake in the leadership and direction of the firm. It will help develop two of the most important skillsets – effective communication and strategic thinking – someone will need if they are ever going to make it to the principal level, according to a recent survey of Fortune 500 CEOs. Better yet, this system seems to work. It’s not just a feel-good measure; it’s real action you can use to exemplify your firm’s values. It takes the words off of the website and drives them into the culture.

This shadow board should meet regularly with the senior team and be composed of people from various functions throughout the firm. Research suggests that Millennials crave more visibility and access. That is exactly what a shadow board delivers. It sets you apart in your recruiting and retention efforts. This often becomes your pool of second-tier leaders that end up being identified for future ownership opportunities. So, what are a few of the “next” practices in implementing a shadow board in your firm?

  • Look Beyond the “High-Potential” Group. As with mentoring, this isn’t simply an exercise for those you’ve already identified as high performers. Allow anyone that meets your pre-defined criteria, and who has a passion to do so, apply for a seat on the board. This will lead to a more diverse set of individuals and the possible discovery of someone within your organization that you hadn’t recognized up until that point. Often, only choosing high performers means you miss out on those with the highest performance in skillsets such as data analytics, complex or strategic thinking (how do the pieces fit together), and team-work.
  • Be Sure it is Vigorously Supported by Firm Leadership and Directly by the “CEO.” In order for this to work, as with many strategic initiatives, support needs to come from the top. The majority of the execution happens elsewhere, but the firm needs to know that this is important to the managing principals for it to have real impact. Principals should be interacting, interviewing, and playing an active role with potential members.
  • Evaluate, Iterate, and Figure out What Works. You may not get it right the first time. There will be a learning curve as you seek to implement this into the existing culture of your organization. How long are appointments, who is included, is the group the right size, and is it diverse enough? These are questions that will need answers. We suggest reviewing the program on a semi-annual basis for the first two years and then annually to ensure that it is meeting the goals for which it was established.

If you are interested in forming a shadow board, we’d like to hear from you.


Phil Keil is director of Strategy Consulting, Zweig Group. Contact him at pkeil@zweiggroup.com.

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