Effective Shadowing

Shadowing is a very popular and adaptable learning and development method, used in many fields. It involves pairing up a newbie with a person that has a required skill, know-how or experience. With this method, one will transfer his knowledge and the other will develop his skills.

Learning is a journey that may come easier to some people than others. Some people like to learn quickly while others prefer to learn slowly and deeply about each potential scenario they may face in their job (this is often unrealistic or even counterproductive in a training environment). Others simply don’t ponder much on what their future role has in store for them and will choose to learn as they go, oftentimes through trial and error, which could come at a cost. Whatever the case may be, shadowing has multiple benefits that can address all of the aforementioned scenarios:

  • It promotes a collaborative work environment
  • It instills trust and enhances team dynamics
  • It reduces the risk of failure
  • It reduces the time required for an individual to become productive
  • It delivers first-hand experience and advice
  • It’s a great way to share best practices among peers
  • It helps individuals become more confident, aware and better prepared for their new role

Shadowing is so dynamic and adaptable that it is commonly used in fields such as education, manufacturing, retail and customer service, just to name a few. In addition, organizations have been using it as an effective tool for:

  • New employee training
  • Career development
  • Expertise development
  • Leadership development

However, given its variability, shadowing isn’t a risk-free practice. If misused, shadowing can have a negative impact on how people open up about sharing their knowledge and experience. Instead of reaping the benefits of its potential, you could end up in a very awkward and uncomfortable situation that completely contradicts the objective of effective shadowing. A tricky aspect of an effective shadowing session is the fact that you should only be able to shadow for a limited amount of time and therefore, you want to make sure that you make the most of it. Otherwise, both parties involved in the process will lose interest.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to shadowing and the focus of this article is related to my most recent shadowing endeavor: leadership development. With that being said, here are a few things you should consider to make sure your shadowing experience is both enlightening and rewarding.

Set expectations

Perhaps, one of the most important aspects of the shadowing practice is clarity. Keep in mind that you will be “invading” a person’s space. If the reason for this isn’t clearly communicated, you may experience resistance, evasiveness or an awkward silence; all of these will affect the quality of the information and/or the learning experience. This is also a time where you get to probe if your learning style is compatible with the person you’re shadowing. For example, I like to let people know that, when I am shadowing, I like to ask lots of questions because that’s how I make sure that I clearly understand what I’m observing. This way, I can give the person a heads up, so that they don’t feel overwhelmed by my questions.

When the “why” is clearly stated and understood by both parties, it sets the foundation for a comfortable, open and productive experience. Keep an “I’m here to help” mentality and be mindful of how you make suggestions.


Make sure to ask questions. If you have no question, you won’t provide feedback about what the person you’re shadowing should focus on. Asking questions is beneficial for both parties: the person asking questions is getting knowledge and the person responding is discovering the kind of information you needed to understand the task at hand. Make sure you ask relevant questions. Keep in mind that, with the questions you ask, you’re sharing insights on your thought process. If the person gets the impression that your questions are too general or unrelated to the task, he may consider this as a lack of interest, which would be rude considering that he’s investing his time to show you the ropes.


Effective communication requires good listening. Besides, it sort of beats the point if you’re asking questions but you’re not listening to the answers giving you the information that you requested. If the answer doesn’t address your question, consider rephrasing or providing an example to better explain what you’re hoping to get clarification on.

Take Notes

The main objective of a shadowing session is to obtain knowledge that will be usable in the long-run. Therefore, since we have a very short memory span, it is very important to take notes on what you’ve learned. Otherwise, a few days down the road, you’ll probably forget some important details.

Personally, I prefer to give the person my undivided attention and work on my notes as soon as our session is over unless there is something extremely specific such as numbers or dates that are important, in which case, I’ll make sure to note on the spot. The reason for this is that I want to make sure that I get an “as close to reality” feel of the process I’m shadowing, while also making good use of my mentor’s time since he/she won’t have to wait for me to finish my notes.

In my experience, taking notes after the session is over is also a good way of reviewing what you just learned and most of the time it will help you catch details you may have missed the first time. This is where you’ll want to write down any questions you may have so you can share them with your mentor.


After your shadowing period is over, make sure to share your findings and your final thoughts on the experience. This is a great opportunity to provide feedback and to thank your host for taking the time to share their knowledge and experience with you.

Any organization can benefit from shadowing. I like to think of it as hitting two birds with one stone because you’re addressing a skill gap while also getting to know and appreciate the person you’re spending time with. It is a key learning method which, if handled correctly, will yield many positive results in several aspects of the business.