Shadow Weeks? A Jolly Good Idea

Posted 03.18.2011

Westminster A brief article in the Financial Times of London recently reported that Mark Prisk, England’s enterprise minister is drawing up a plan in which government ministers and senior civil servants would have to complete a week’s work assignment in a small business. Prisk’s own staff has taken up the plan. One of his directors, for example, recently spent the better part of a week oiling sprockets at a bike factory in Brentford.

Prisk notes that the typical hour long visit that government officials frequently make to small businesses “can be helpful, but it doesn’t allow you to get under the skin of a business.”  In his own case, Prisk spent a week with a manufacturer of adjustable beds and making sales calls for a company that manufactures devices that measure domestic energy use. 

The point, of course, is to deepen the level of understanding among senior government officials about how the rules they make and enforce affect the businesses that have to follow them. 

By asking his colleagues to spend a week in a small business, enterprise minister Prisk is raising the bar on a practice I’ve been asking my coaching clients to follow for a number of years now.  I’m a big fan of managers and executives taking shadow days with counterparts or more senior leaders in another part of their organization. The big idea is to get a different perspective on your job and what it contributes by watching and talking with someone else about how they do their job. My clients almost always come back with actionable insights and, as I noted last year in a post called Five Traits of the Most Admired Leaders, they often learn a lot about leadership in the process.

Could you implement shadow days or shadow weeks in your organization? Your first reaction might be to say that there’s too much real work for people to do instead of following someone around or working somewhere else for a day or a week. It’s likely, though, that leaders in your organization spend days or weeks in structured training or educational programs. Why not redirect some of that time to shadow days or shadow weeks? It’s possible that your managers and executives would learn more at less cost.