Professional Shadowing for Your Toolbox

by Ryan Nitz, former Head Editor, INALJ Alaska
previously published 5/14/14

Professional Shadowing for Your Toolbox

ryan.nitzAs part of a training program at work, I recently had the opportunity to spend a day shadowing someone in a leadership position in my organization. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be one of the most beneficial learning experiences I’ve had in quite a while. It got me thinking about job hunting, and about the fact that we often hear that one good way to gain experience in a field is by volunteering. Shadowing is not exactly the same kind of scenario and, depending on whom you are asking, it may more or less difficult to set up (in a volunteer situation, you’re offering up some kind of service to the organization; shadowing involves asking for the opportunity to observe and learn–although a forward-thinking manager should recognize the opportunity to help shape those coming up in their field), but it is another great way to add to your resume and gain some real-world knowledge and experience.

If you’re currently pursuing training and/or education, there are most likely people who can help you identify and seek out individuals from whom you’d like the opportunity to learn. If you’re no longer in school, it you’ll have to do more of the legwork on your own, but you likely will be able to find someone amenable to a shadowing arrangement. It makes the most sense to choose someone in a position to which you aspire, or at least one with many similar job duties and/or involved competences. Keep in mind that if you’re asking to shadow a manager, that person can likely give you a green light on their own—but if you’re seeking a shadowing opportunity with someone not in a management position (say a cataloger, reference librarian, or ILL technician), they or you should make sure to get the organizational OK from a supervisor.

It’s also a good idea to prepare some interview-style questions for your shadow subject. I found that these helped fill in gaps in the day during which there was not a lot of activity to observe, and I ended up not only getting to know someone and catch a glimpse of their perspective, but also receiving some fantastic career advice. Throughout the day, you’ll also almost certainly be introduced to a bunch of other people who work with your shadow subject, so there will be quite a few opportunities for networking.

Handle yourself professionally and be friendly and eager to learn, and it’s highly unlikely that the experience will be anything but positive, educational, and beneficial to your career. You never know when you’ll find someone you met once or twice now working in an influential position, looking to fill a position in their organization, looking for an intern, etc. Sometimes having a little bit of experience and understanding of how things happen “on the ground” is just the little push your resume needs to land you on the short list or on the payroll.

Even after finding a job (or if you’re currently employed), keep shadowing in your toolbox. Consult with your supervisor about the possibility of spending a day each year, or whatever seems appropriate, observing someone else. The dividends it pays to the individual and the organization in enhanced perspective and professional networking are well worth the small time investment.

Thanks for stopping by. As always, feel free to comment and/or drop me a line with any questions.