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An Effective Shadowing Process For Leadership Development
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By Daniel D. Elash

I>Introduction:

Shadowing is a technique in which a person wishing to learn a skill follows and observes another while that person´s expertise is being displayed. It is a common developmental tool across business and industry today. However, it is often a weak, generic experience rather than the robust one it should be. This is because we misapply an old idea within a new context. That new context is today´s business environment. The misapplication usually involves the learner following the role model around for a period of time. It may involve some targeted event, but not always. It seldom involves including the learner in the life cycle of the experience (before, during, and after the shadowed event), or in collaboration with all of the participants in the event.

What is a shadow? It is a vague shape that silently, unobtrusively follows you as you go about your business. Not surprisingly, this model seldom leads to new learning. There are several reasons for this:

  • The deep conversation and hands on experience that are critical elements for mastery of complex skills that are missing here.
  • The learning is seldom shared beyond the "learner/coach" dyad.
  • The "learning" is often left to the observational, deductive and intuitive capabilities of the learner. Unfortunately, the learner is almost never psychic.
  • The role model frequently is someone who does not have a teaching plan, and who may or may not be an adequate coach. Unfortunately, subject matter expertise does not automatically translate into strong teaching skills.
Today´s business environment:
In today´s world of networked organizations, disruptive technologies, customer/supplier alliances, information overload and continuous change, learning and professional development remain crucial; it´s the shadowing approach that must evolve. For a learning process to be most effective in today´s business environment, it should include: Real time learning

  • In situ—as the work unfolds
  • In real time – quick feedback and conversations where the ideas can be explored
  • On-going conversation about the work A culture that supports dialogue and inquiry
  • A process where ideas are shared and learning is not one- directional
  • A process where the "whys" behind the decisions are explored and challenged
  • A process where the group is conscious about its collective thinking and takes responsibility for getting better at it over time
The total individual involved in the learning:
  • Anticipation skills – the ability to anticipate multiple contingencies
  • Planning skills – the ability to develop working plans without slavish dependence upon them
  • Contextual understanding around the event is a critical part of the learning
  • Experiential learning
  • Processing experiences by talking with other participants, making tacit knowledge explicit
  • After action analysis and review
  • Practice and rehearsal
Reworking the shadowing process:

If we rework the shadowing process to enhance its value as a teaching/learning process, then shadowing can become a thought partnership that can be customized to accommodate the readiness of the student and the needs of the enterprise. A considered, deliberate approach can create learning at the individual level while fostering a culture of inquiry in the business. One process can simultaneously create learning opportunities for:

  • Individuals
  • The individual/coach dyad
  • The action or project team
  • Group learning
  • Organizational learning
The reworked shadowing process:
In the shadowing process suggested here, collaboration is built in at many levels. For one thing, the students´ current level of experience should determine their level of involvement in the learning assignment. Additionally, we can break the work done into three discrete phases: the pre-event preparation, the learning event itself, and the post event analysis. This interplay of experience/level of involvement can be thought of as a matrix, depicted in figure 1.

Fig.1 The Shadowing Process


Student Levels Pre-event In the Event Post-Event
Novice Contributes as able Quiet observation Contributes as able
Experienced Active participant Active participant Active participant
Accomplished Takes lead role Takes lead role Takes lead role


The student and mentor then collaborate to ensure that the student´s participation in the three facets of the learning event is dictated by the learning opportunity, the complexity of the tasks and the readiness of the student to absorb the lessons. In this way:

  • The learner is involved to the level of his/her capability
  • Partnering to create successful learning is expected, but the onus for learning is on the student
  • Certification of learning is a joint effort where teachers are expected to showcase the growth (new competence) now owned by the student.
  • It is expected that everyone can teach anyone and everyone is expected to learn.
By actively partnering to make the learning experience as rich as possible, the student and mentor can use the learning opportunities to generate the rich experience and robust conversations that are most likely to produce learning. Contrast this with the "watch what I do and maybe you´ll learn something" approach taken in the old model of shadowing. Some examples of learning opportunities associated with each phase of the shadowed event are depicted in figure 2.

Fig. 2 Learning Opportunities by Phase


Pre-event Event Itself Post-Event
Laying the groundwork Assess accuracy of key assumptions as the event unfolds Review impressions and interpretations
Networking Listen for issues of concern to other points of view Self review and reflection
Diagnose present situation within its business context Observe the content and the process. Develop questions for later Debrief others. Get and give feedback
Clarify assessments Possibly play an active part in the event Conduct or participate in after action review
Develop action plan Unfold the action plan or watch as it unfolds Discuss the event as it unfolds looking for insights
Listen to or create event strategy Implement the strategy or observe its implementation Assess the effectiveness of the strategy and realign strategy if appropriate


In this way, on-going conversations, tailored to the readiness of the student continue throughout the life-cycle of the learning assignment and provide for real learning to continue long after the shadowing event has passed. Authentic dialogue, partnering around the work and the expectation that everyone can learn from anyone make this approach well suited to today´s business environment.

Article courtesey of Family Business Strategies.

About the author: Daniel D. Elash, PhD. can be reached via emailor at http://www.syntient.biz. Dan´s Doctoral Degree is in Psychology from the University of Kansas. Dan´s consultative expertise includes, leadership development, stratgy, developing organizational thinking skills, enhancing the company´s ability to deftly implement its strategic intent. Dan is a speaker and teacher who places strong emphasis on developing social innovation in client organizations. His consulting client base is diverse, including industrial, retail, financial and service companies.

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