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Shadowing For Leadership Development
by Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D. and James R. Long, Ph.D.



The challenge of building leadership capability within an organization is as critical as it is daunting. The business literature is rife with examples of companies whose managers knew what they needed to do but could not operationalize their purpose. Although investing in leadership development does not guarantee individual or corporate success, companies like GE, PepsiCo, and Dell succeed in developing leaders and generating results.

Successful companies develop leadership skills within a strategic context and in a disciplined manner: routinely, rigorously, and repeatedly. Any company can do this if the purpose is clear, key supportive relationships are established and the needed information to complete a successful program is available. Relationships become key to the effective sharing of needed information. These collaborative relationships create the connections needed inside the organization to operationalize the purpose. In their book, In Good Company, Cohen and Prusak refer to this capability within an organization as its "social capital." We refer to the nature of these relationship interconnections as "thought partnerships."

Thought partnerships become the medium within organizations that facilitate effective collaboration, timely sharing of knowledge, and innovation. The interconnection of many thought partnerships then defines the organization's potential as an adaptive social system. The premise of such a social system is that thought partnerships manage the knowledge and create capability that is greater than the sum of the individual participants. In other words, "no one is as smart as everyone." This belief becomes a fundamental tenet of any organizational process that requires people to work and to think together to create value. It also becomes a key ingredient in any leadership development effort. One leadership development technique that exemplifies thought partnering is a process we call "shadowing."

What is Shadowing?

Shadowing is a technique in which a person wishing to learn a skill (student) accompanies, observes and collaborates with another (mentor), while that person is employing their expertise on a value-producing assignment. Shadowing is a multi-stage process that offers the student the freedom to create his or her own success story. It uses job-specific situations as the practice fields and rehearsal halls for learning complex skills. The student has an opportunity to talk with others, develop work scenarios that are effective and productive, and solicit feedback about improving his or her skills and knowledge. Ongoing conversations about the work help the student better appreciate the roles others play in their success. It also helps them strengthen their own judgment and stretch their thinking skills.

The learning process involves three stages:

  1. Preparation for an event (i.e., meeting, customer contact, presentation, project or the like).
  2. Participation in the event.
  3. Post-event learning, including a debriefing session designed to capture the lessons of the experience.

Participation in all three phases is important if the experience is to be fully developmental. Participation in the event represents involvement in a learning opportunity as well as a work action. Mentors and students approach this event with a shared purpose, and with a commitment to give and take. Both offer observations, thoughts, and opinions. In a true learning experience, both benefit from the process making their student/teacher roles interchangeable as the event unfolds. When others are involved, they may contribute by offering feedback about what was left out, misunderstood or simply underdeveloped in the thinking of the designated student. They ask questions, engage the student, and work to share their tacit knowledge. Vital data is aggregated into information, which becomes bundled into knowledge through vigorous dialogue and serious reflection. This is the essence of a thought partnership; creating additional value through the deliberate focus on collaboration.

Shadowing Facilitates True Learning

Several factors make shadowing a powerful instructional method. First, shadowing uses the actual work of the organization itself as the context for learning. This "action learning" approach is highly relevant to both the mentor and the student. In shadowing, the student and the mentor are each motivated to engage in the task - a far cry from the predominant attitudes toward workshops, simulations or classrooms. The student and mentor learn to communicate with each other about the work, to learn from their shared experiences and to recognize the benefit of their collective efforts.

Second, a shadowing approach requires learning to occur through practice, and on-going feedback. Research and experience have taught us that this is how complex skills are learned. Shadowing combines key elements of effective adult learning: preparation, concrete experience, reflection, and dialogue (feedback, and guidance). This process recognizes the roles that the student, mentor and those who work with the student, play in skill building and social innovation. The freedom to learn through experience alters the experience of the student and that of his or her thought partners. Creating new and sometimes better scenarios through learning relies on conversations about the whys and wherefores of the work; it makes tacit knowledge explicit. In the course of planning, observing, diagnosing and debriefing, an integrated leadership perspective emerges which positively impacts the leadership story of the organization.

Third, shadowing provides opportunities for feedback and conversation that closely follow on the heels of the experience itself. The main players in the action have the opportunity to tell an updated version of the story. The level of intimacy and involvement between student and mentor has been shown to be positive factors in successful adult learning efforts. Mentor and student not only go through the event together but their individual levels of involvement change as the student's skill grows. The student progresses and both parties become more deeply involved in the process. This makes the shadowing experience particularly powerful in leadership skill development.

Finally, shadowing demystifies expertise. The student listens to, observes and participates in behind-the-scenes thinking and planning. It is as if the student were in the kitchen, watching and assisting as the master chef prepares the food and creates the meal. Decision-making parameters are discussed and the student is witness to the mentor making intuitive decisions and asking questions. Key moments provide the student with eye-opening insights into the experience. A new edition of the experience unfolds and the understanding of the work experience changes, for the student and the mentor.

The Shadowing Process

It is a well-held assumption that learning only factual information about an expert's methods is less effective than when simulated work or on-the-job applications are utilized. This is partly because didactic learning does not teach the student how to make the discriminations and judgments required in a leadership role. In work situations where on-the-job techniques have not been utilized, there is the challenge of defining the work for the benefit of all participating parties.

Executives, supervisors and mentors can fall into the trap of minimizing their value in the shadowing process. First, they can underestimate their own level of skill. It does not seem to them that what they are doing is a "big deal." Therefore, anyone should be able to learn it without much effort. Second, experts can assume that bright people (i.e., those chosen from across all levels in the organization for leadership development) can figure out what to do with minimal mentoring. Somehow, they'll just "get it!" A shadowing program minimizes these possibilities by providing structure to the process in three stages: the pre-event stage, the event stage and the post-event stage.

The Pre-event Stage

In this stage, the mentor and student choose a learning event. They begin by determining the critical factors that will make the event a success. The business objectives for the event must be clear to the student. The strategies for attaining the desired outcomes and the roles that the actors will play within the event are also clarified. Some tasks may involve participants other than the student and mentor. In those situations, group discussions among the group are required. The results of this discussion enhance the awareness of the process first and foremost for all of the people involved. All event planning and preparation is conducted at a level of complexity appropriate to the business requirements, with the mentor involving the student to the degree possible.

The Event Itself

The person being developed notices the unfolding of the plan and the strategy within the situation. This includes monitoring the participants within the action. Do they perform as expected or predicted? The student looks for the signs, signals and cues, which are relevant or which are indicative of other issues. Were there spontaneous or accidental variations from the script on a personal or a process level? It is the role of the learner to go through the situation with the expectation of discussing these issues afterward. These efforts on the part of the student usually cannot be discussed during the event itself.

There are wide ranges of activities that can be used to instruct one in the art of leadership. The particular event is chosen based upon the experience and capabilities that are sought for the student. It should be correlated with the critical capabilities that the person would be expected to demonstrate within a leadership position. The student attends the event as an observer of both process and content. Thus, new local line leaders might benefit from shadowing an experienced hand through a performance management cycle. A vice president may shadow someone on the executive committee through a potential acquisition.

The Post-Event Analysis

After the event is completed, the mentor, student and the rest of the team meet to debrief. The student always speaks first in these forums.

The goal of this phase is to learn the maximum amount from what happened. During these discussions, the mentor or team, with the student seek to understand the results. This includes an understanding of the implications of what has happened upon their assumptions and their strategies, and the impact of their interpretation of events upon their larger point of view. A thorough discussion occurs, exploring the interpretations and assessments by the participants. A plan is developed for disseminating the findings in a manner appropriate to the expectations of the organization.


Companies can optimize their social capital through a robust system of thought partnerships. These partnerships have as their goal shared learning and collaborative problem solving in the service of the enterprise.

One technique for both supporting thought partnerships and developing leaders at every level is shadowing. Shadowing is a technique in which a person wishing to learn a skill (student) accompanies, observes and collaborates with another (mentor), while that person is employing their expertise on a value-producing assignment. As described here, shadowing is a powerful approach to adult learning that meshes ideally with the needs of today's organizations. The process uses the work of the organization as learning laboratories. The whole event, before, during, and after the work, is used to facilitate the learning. The complexity of the experience can be tailored to both the needs of the student and the requirements of the work.

In Shadowing For Leadership Development Part 2 we will explore role variations within the Shadowing process.


The Authors

Dan Elash

Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D is the principal of Syntient. Dan's Doctoral Degree is in Psychology from the University of Kansas. Dan's consultant expertise includes enhancing organizational capability through collaboration and facilitating change at the individual, team and organizational levels. Dan is a speaker and teacher who places strong emphasis on developing social innovation in client organizations. His goal is to help client companies realize their untapped potential.  Dan uses communication and community building as fundamental platforms for generating and sustaining personal and organizational capability.

E-mail: and visit .

James R. Long, Ph.D. - Jim Long is a principal and senior consultant with PERSOMA Management, Inc. Jim holds a Doctorate in Rehabilitation Counseling from the University of Pittsburgh. His leadership experience includes roles as military officer, manager, executive coach, consultant, business principal and board member. Jim has always had an interest in viewing organizations as systems. He has first-hand managerial experience leading organizations during various stages of change, in both growth-oriented and downsizing circumstances. He has worked with both small and large profit and non-profit organizations and firms. His clientele includes organizations in healthcare, technology and manufacturing areas. Jim has worked with individual leaders, executive teams and leadership groups of managers. Jim can be reached at or by calling 412-824-5359.

Many more articles in Collaborative Thinking and Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2002 by Daniel D. Elash and James R. Long . All rights reserved.

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