It’s 10:15 AM, and the professional who’s graciously agreed to let me shadow her for the day has just finished answering my questions about her career path, what she likes and dislikes about the job, and how to break into her industry. Now she is staring at me. I smile back. The panic that plays across her face as she realizes she has no idea what to do with me for the next six hours and 45 minutes is painfully obvious.
“Um, so, I’m just going to do some stuff on my computer now.” She says awkwardly. “Do you want to just hang out in my office?”
I’m a current college student and enthusiastic job-shadower, and I’d say that this sort of thing happens with three out of every five people I follow around. It’s not that I don’t appreciate these people giving up their valuable time to help me, but those days are not the educational experiences I’m shooting for. In fact, they’re not really productive (or fun) for either party.
If you’re generous enough to let someone shadow you, here’s how to make it worth both you and your shadow’s time. Who knows—you may just find your company’s next recruit.
What to Do Beforehand
Pick the Appointment Strategically
As a shadow, I’m hoping for a day in your schedule when you have enough unstructured time to walk me around, thoroughly explain everything, and answer questions. But I also want to watch you complete some typical duties, like join a brainstorming session or meet a client. In other words, choose a day when you have some interesting things going on, but not one that’s back-to-back meetings.
Also, if the prospect of giving up a whole eight hours to host makes you reach for your stress ball, propose a half-day instead. (This is also a good strategy if your job is pretty repetitive on any given day.) Saying, “I’d love to show you what I do and where I work. Let’s keep it to a half-day to ensure you get something out of the experience,” will keep your shadow and your to-do list happy.
Involve Your Colleagues—or at Least Warn Them
At every place I visit, there are usually four or five employees besides the one I’m trailing who I would also love to sit down and talk to. When I toured The Boston Globe, the writer who was hosting me actually asked six editors in advance if they each had 15 minutes for me. It was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my shadowing career.
Arranging something like this for your shadow is enormously helpful—and can buy you at least an hour of time to get some real work done. However, if your co-workers are too busy to pow-wow, you should still tell them you have a guest; they can always give a brief spiel to your shadow as you two walk around the office.
Oh, and for obvious reasons, you should ask your boss if it’s okay for you to have a visitor.
Do Some Final Prep
While you don’t need an intense, every-minute-mapped out plan, having a general idea of each hour’s activities will help you avoid the “10:15 and already done” scenario. Consider sending the agenda’s highlights to your shadow so he or she knows what to expect—it’s a touch I’ve always really appreciated.
You’ll also want to give instructions on dress code, directions to your office, parking info, and what he she should bring (a computer, lunch, and the like) ahead of time.
The Day Of
When I’m shadowing someone I don’t know well (or at all), there’s an easy way to make the day much less awkward: Right after I arrive, the professional starts by telling me her professional background, where she went to college, why she chose the field, and other basics. I’m normally pretty nervous in the beginning, so this gives me a chance to relax and nod my head a lot. After this, we’re both “warmed up,” and I’m ready to start asking questions.
This is also a great time to give your shadow a tour of the workplace. I personally enjoy hearing about how the office is organized, what the typical atmosphere is, what hours people work, and the name and title of each person we’re passing.
If you’re having your shadow chat with other employees, feel free to incorporate that information into the tour.
One of my favorite parts about job-shadowing someone is eating lunch—not because food is the best, but because it gives us a chance to more fully discuss everything I’m getting introduced to. At this point in the day, both of us feel pretty comfortable and can get beyond “What’s your major?” into “Why are you interested in this job?” Usually I can get the best feel of whether a career or company will be right for me during the lunch.
If your shadow isn’t that talkative, do your best to draw him out. Ask about his strengths, interests, classes, and other questions not just related to why the job or company.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to highlight the positives and negatives of your career. Showing a little bit of vulnerability and honesty about your job will likely get your shadow more talkative as well.
In the Afternoon
It’s always valuable when the professional I’m with gives me a couple of his or her assignments to help with. For example, knowing that I love to write, the director of a charity foundation asked me to compose a thank-you letter to last year’s sponsors. A local politician gave me a bundle of documents related to a proposed solar project and asked me if I thought his boss should advocate or oppose it.
Another way to help your shadow test-drive the job is to walk him or her through one of your primary responsibilities. As long as it’s important to what you do, I wouldn’t worry about trying to choose something really exciting—after all, as a shadow, I actually want to know if I’d be bored by a task I’d regularly have to complete.
I have also sat in on meetings and listened to client calls, both of which have given me a great feel for the type of people I’d be working with. If it’s feasible, I’d encourage you to do one or both with your shadow.
At the End of the Day
Now is your time to play Yoda: Ask your shadow what she learned from the experience, what misconceptions she had, what she liked and what she wasn’t so enthusiastic about, and if she has any questions.
I also once had a professional challenge me to come up with a list of goals. He said that he hoped our day together had influenced me, either to pursue that career or to look into something else, and that I should come up with some actions to reflect my takeaways. Major bonus points!
With some planning, job-shadowing can be a highly rewarding experience. Obviously your shadow benefits, but you get the satisfaction of shaping someone’s future. Pretty darn cool.