Young and on Shadow Boards – a NextGen Directors Programme

Women on Boards and RenewableUK highlight the value of young people on corporate boards

A younger executive committee or “shadow board” is an emerging and exciting area of workplace inclusion and performance initiatives. Organisations ranging from luxury fashion houses, hotel chains and charities are taking on a cohort of younger staff to work alongside their main board because it makes sound business sense.

Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, comprise more than 50% of the UK workforce, while Generation Z – or Gen Z – currently make up 30% of the world’s population and are expected to account for 27% of the workforce by 2025. Having age diversity could be a game-changer for many companies if they want to ensure they embrace this consumer group.

Workplace activism is shaping the future of boards

According to the World Economic Forum, younger people prefer more ethical and environmentally friendly businesses. They demand that employers enshrine values and ethics into their business model, not just profit. Alex Tamlyn, Head of DLA Piper’s EMEA Capital Markets practice and Co-Chair of the firm’s Boardroom Advisory Services, was a recent guest on our ‘Ten for Ten’ podcast series. He refers to the phenomenon of employees becoming increasingly vocal about how businesses should operate as “workplace activism”.

This trend is shaping the future of Boards and should be seen as a positive thing. Workplace activism is forcing management to listen to the views expressed by their talent, and harnessing this in the form of a shadow board has two distinct advantages. Having younger exposed to the boardroom can help companies understand the values of an increasingly purpose-driven and changing consumer landscape.

From a commercial standpoint, this helps a company position its brand with the consumer. From a culture perspective, embracing the views of younger employees can help re-engage workers and attract a younger talent pool.

Moreover, giving younger employees direct access to the senior management team and the running of the business provides them with invaluable insight into the complexities and nuances of navigating some of today’s most pressing issues and, in turn, greater appreciation for the obstacles and challenges involved in running a business.

Shadow boards and their benefits

This “reverse mentoring” element is certainly one of the gains RenewableUK has reported since opening its shadow board in 2019. RenewableUK is a trade association whose shadow board consists of employees from its member organisations, including Siemens Gamesa, RWE and ScottishPower.

Amongst other topics, the shadow board has been developed to help companies scale up faster on renewables and accelerate the UK’s transition to a net zero future. Tapping into this tech-savvy generation’s drive, creativity, and originality is proving invaluable to RenewableUK and its members.

What’s more, with the right development and training plans in place, shadow boards have a high potential for lasting benefits to those professionals’ careers in the long term, building a future-fit and savvy workforce. What helped to make the RenewableUK initiative a success is their partnership with Women on Boards WB NexGen Directors to ensure that shadow board members have the support and learning about how to engage effectively in a board environment as well as the skills to take back to their day jobs and help position themselves for the promotion opportunities they merit.

Gucci is another great example. The luxury fashion house created a shadow ‘committee’ of millennials in 2015, who regularly met with senior executives. Insights from younger employees across the business provided what Gucci calls a ‘wake-up call’ for the senior team and helped with its profitable turnaround.

Best practices for implementing a shadow board

Business relies on diversity — of experience and of thought — and having input from different demographics has many positives. When we consider that the average age of a NED is approximately 59.2, it is clear that Boards need to seek new ways to engage a diverse range of voices to help them react to the changing social and business environment in which their companies operate. I firmly believe you’re never too young to be in the boardroom or understand its dynamics. To ensure you maximise the full potential of your shadow board, consider these important recommendations:

  1. Ensure that your shadow board is a diverse mix of genders, ethnicities and professional disciplines. If you do this, you will reap the benefits of a richer, more innovative strategy and be more in touch with society.
  2. View the opportunity as a way to nurture your greatest talent and position them as future leaders by investing in the right skills training, particularly around what it means to operate in a non-executive capacity. Done well, your shadow board could even be viewed as a form of succession planning.
  3. Coach, rather than manage – this will empower your younger staff and ensure you get the best from them.
  4. Actively listen and embrace the views of your shadow board. Whether about new technology or social responsibility, be humble, fully engaged and prepared to act on what you learn.
  5. Encourage your shadow board members to take on full non-executive roles in non-conflicting organisations, such as charities, sports clubs or community groups. It’s a great way to impact a cause they care about whilst honing their strategic skills and broadening their networks.

For information on the Women on Boards NextGen Directors Programme, visit here or email

Fiona Hathorn, CEO and co-founder of Women on Boards UK.

Rate This: