The CEO Refresher Websites for Professionals
Take control of your online presence
with your own professional website!

Shadowing For Leadership Development - Part 2
Role Variations within the Shadowing Process

by Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D. and James R. Long, Ph.D.



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. 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.

In part one we explored the three stages of the learning process, how shadowing is a powerful instructional method, and how the shadowing process is structured in three stages: the pre-event stage, the event stage and the post-event stage. In this article we will explore the role variations within the shadowing process and provide examples of the shadowing leadership development technique.

Role Variations within the Shadowing Process

The roles of the student and the mentor vary depending upon the student's level of experience and competency. Although some situations may permit greater delineations, this discussion will examine three broad categories of students:

  • Novice - a relatively naïve participant with little or no context for understanding the learning activities.
  • Experienced - having some experience and perspective with similar events, the student can act as a contributing participant, particularly with support from the mentor or other team members.
  • Accomplished - a person who has solid capability within the desired area, but who can still be further refined and developed with additional mentoring.

The Novice:

In this situation, the role that the student plays is limited. For learning to occur, the student must play an active part. The nature and depth of activity depends on the complexity of the task and the specifics of the event itself. Let's consider a generic situation for illustration.

The student gets an opportunity to take a first cut at the pre-event groundwork, research, networking, and strategy development, regardless of the student's level of expertise. In some situations, preparatory work is only shared with the mentor for instructional purposes. In other instances it may be shared with the work group assigned to the project. There are two goals here: 1) let the student get his or her feet wet; 2) tackle the task, understanding what is required to conduct this phase well. The available time will determine whether the work group can let the student go first, or if the student has a particular deliverable, or if the student is doing a practice run while the work group does the work "for real."

The student presents his or her foundation work to the mentor or to the full team, articulating their thinking as well as the assumptions behind the work. The mentor and/or team listen fully to gain a basic understanding of the student's knowledge, what the student needs to know better, and what the student doesn't know at all. The mentor utilizes observations and recommendations from others to create a mentoring plan for the student, the basis for their ongoing dialogue.

Meanwhile, the project or assigned work is still unfolding in real time. The student listens to the thinking, planning and assessment by those who have the actual responsibility for the work. The mentor and student can discuss the differences between how the student approached the tasks compared to how others on the team performed. There are instances in which fresh, inexperienced eyes illustrate that learning does occur in both directions.

Let's look at a hypothetical situation where a novice is involved in a pre-event planning process. This situation can be likened to a student project with some on the job experience thrown in. Company A is planning an initiative to modernize and streamline its brand identity. The VP of Marketing is responsible for bringing the stakeholders together to set the stage for the initiative. There is a plant manager within the organization who has been identified as a person with strong potential for further development. He has been assigned to the VP to shadow through the project.

An initial conversation reveals that the plant manager, while bright and thoughtful has no real knowledge or experience to be a direct contributor on the team. The VP decides to do two things with the PM. One, while offering some references to the PM as a way of focusing his research, the VP assigns the PM the opportunity to build a plan for the company to do the assessments, to plan the project and to go so far as to present hypothetical action items as a result of that work. The PM will work with a person in the marketing department on the day-to-day conversations; periodically the VP will mentor the PM and will review this project as it unfolds.

The second assignment is for the PM to attend the working meetings of the project team. The VP introduced the PM to the team members as a shadow member of the team. The implications were that the PM would primarily observe and share perceptions, questions and ideas with the VP away from the team. As the PM became more comfortable he would offer input or ask questions as the team worked. He would also be expected to brainstorm as a full participant.

Finally, the PM would be expected to debrief the VP on what he was learning at each meeting and to receive coaching around those learnings as appropriate.

The Experienced Student:

The student with some experience should be entrusted with more responsibility for contributing constructively to the event. With the novice, the main thrust was instructional. In this phase, key working deliverables are added to the mix. The experienced student is considered to be a member of the working team.

The mentor is both watching the work effort unfold and keeping a second eye on the learning needs of the student. The mentor is evaluating the student's knowledge, listening for areas of weakness, signs of inexperience or indications of limited judgment. The mentor recognizes and showcases the student's growth for others, while always listening for what is still missing. Great mentors are constantly looking for new ways to leverage what the student knows by identifying new situations for the student, new resources to bring to bear, and new ways to help student to achieve new levels of competency.

The experienced student's job is to take risks in the presence of the mentor or the team. In this phase, the purpose is to demonstrate what they know, offer their ideas without prompting, and attempt to deliver what is needed. The student's approach is more proactive, seeking to create opportunities for dialogue about the work. In this way, students explore genuine differences in assumptions, perspectives, or errors.

As an example we'll consider a manager who was recruited to a sales force for a Japanese company based in North America. MGR was hired away from a major automotive customer with the expectation that she would assist the company to serve the client by bringing the customer's point of view inside, and by offering her expertise to the sales force's planning and execution. The VP of Sales was expecting the new hire would come in, learn the Japanese processes, learn from her Japanese stakeholders, appreciate the company's traditions and spend a lot of time listening. The new hire was planning to come in and make immediate changes based on her experiences as a customer. She was also eager to demonstrate her value to her new teammates by "putting her stamp" on the team from the start. It was clear to the outside observer that there was the potential for a serious disconnect with her Japanese stakeholders. The VP of Sales decided to set up a shadowing assignment for an experienced person.

There are two parts to this assignment. One part revolved around learning the culture of the company. The other part revolved around developing strong working relationships with the internal customers and consumers of her work products. To address the first issue the VP of Sales contacted MGR prior to her start date and discussed an assignment's goal of learning how to work effectively within the culture of her new company. Respecting her experience the conversation focused upon her expectations of how the new culture worked and how she planned to fit in. The VP listened and drew out her thinking. He helped her to think about the issues by the questions he asked without telling his opinion. As she exhausted her perspective, the VP identified other issues or areas where the culture might differ from that in her old company. They discussed the implications of culture on her new role in some detail. The VP asked her to come to work with the eye of an anthropologist for the first six weeks, learning the rules, customs and rituals of the organization. They would meet in his office once a week for those first weeks to discuss her discoveries and their implications.

The second part of her shadowing program focused upon her ability to join the team as a valued member as opposed to a distraction. After a discussion she suggested that she interview each of the key stakeholders in her position with an eye toward "taking the customer's order." She would ask others what they needed from her and how she could contribute to their success and that of the team from their point of view. She would also interview them to learn their thoughts about the internal value chain within the company. She would then prepare a "white paper" presentation to the team giving them a plan for how she would work in her new role. The VP listened to her plan, augmented it slightly but basically blessed it because he felt that she was on track with a plan for integrating herself into the team in a way that would produce good results for everyone. They would meet periodically and discuss what she was learning and working to optimize the take aways from this exercise.

The Accomplished Person:

The student delivers a work product and receives some fine-tuning while the mentor is primarily watching. The mentor's role is more passive than that which occurred when the student was a novice. The ownership of the event or project falls more directly to the student who has some established expertise. The student is asked to share thoughts, interpretations and assessments of the work.

Often senior people in the organization have a tendency to jump into the conversation to get to the heart of the matter quickly. However, the goal is not having someone who knows the answer step in, but to enhance the student's ability to think his or her way through to the answer. So the mentor withholds comment and assesses the student's knowledge and learning needs. The mentor can guide the student through his or her analysis by probing and playing the role of a curious friend. Only when the student has exhausted his or her analysis does the mentor identify what has been missed, or what could be enhanced.

The mentor also has the responsibility for being the student's champion within the organization. If the mentor listens well and assesses accurately then he or she can better represent the true state of the student's development to the rest of the team. The mentor needs to work with others to ensure dissemination of an accurate image of the student's new levels of competency. Simultaneously, the mentor has to help the organization to fully employ the new capabilities acquired by the student in this developmental process.

This progression from quiet observation to the student's ownership for results is characteristic of the progressive phases of the shadowing process. The mentor's activity level is directly predicated upon the student's level of development. The learning tasks differ across the life cycle of the project and the shadowing process.

An example here is the story of a CFO, with a lengthy background in publicly held companies and deep experience in the treasurer's responsibilities of the position was hired into a family owned, privately owned company to help the CEO manage the effort to go public. The CEO was an accomplished, savvy, and successful businessman. Several key outside directors were a resource team to the CFO in assisting the CEO through the process.

In this scenario, the CEO took the lead in preparing the organization's initiative. The CEO took responsibility for bringing the internal management team as well as lining up the appropriate outside resources and consultants to ensure a flawless execution. The CFO, by virtue of his position had a significant collaborative relationship with the CEO on this process. An additional role was to serve as the after hours sounding board and thought partner with the CEO. The CFO, having dealt with "the street" adds perspective and stretches the CEO's thinking when he misses something important. The goal of the mentoring isn't to own the process here. It is to ensure that a quite accomplished person doesn't miss something from a limited sense of perspective.


Companies are looking for better ways to develop talent while simultaneously creating value. There isn't the time anymore to take one's eye off of the ball and engage in isolated activities set up for passive data acquisition. Companies can optimize their social capital through a robust system of thought partnerships.

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. 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 3 we will explore mentoring and facilitating 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
The CEO Refresher

Copyright 2002 by Daniel D. Elash and James R. Long . All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading

Refresher Publications