Opinion: You can gain a lot from having a shadow

Peter Cardy

Shadowing is an underrated learning tool for senior people. It can be hard to discern what's going on when someone arrives for a meeting and introduces 'my shadow', who sits silent throughout, never to be seen again. I've had requests for shadowing for a long time and, after busking the first one, I now have a regular routine.

The first time I was so flattered I forgot to ask why they wanted to shadow me. The reasons that make the most sense are wanting to see at first hand how a large charity is run, how leadership is exercised, how the daily demands, from the sublime to the gorblimey, get managed, or to understand the business and culture as distinct from the public identity.

It's obvious whether the would-be shadow has clear aims, not all of which are of equal value. Sometimes it's the hope that mysterious gifts will be transferred, like my belief that if I hang around rich people their wealth will rub off on me. It doesn't happen. Sometimes it's a way of trying to get noticed by people who feel their careers are in the doldrums, but that doesn't happen either.

Synergy established, the challenge is the right time. A lot can be achieved in a week, though it doesn't have to be in a single hit. Aligning two diaries and finding the week with the most informative combination of events - executive or trustees, media - can take months.

We agree on total confidentiality: every meeting participant is asked in advance for their agreement; refusals are rare but always respected.

The background papers for pre-reading are a formidable electronic packet.

I set time aside for briefing before shadowing starts, at the start and end of the day and before each meeting, and for a review later.

Shadows often underestimate just how tiring ten or 12 solid hours of unfamiliar material can be. I try to pause to explain our arcane language or the circumstances that led to where we are now. Although there is an implicit vow of silence, my colleagues will often ask the shadow for their take on the matter in hand, which is invariably refreshing.

If it's such hard work, why do it? We all benefit from shared understanding of our respective charities, we create a better talent pool and enhance the performance of others. But there is a personal payback too: seeing through fresh eyes what I take for granted leads me to ask questions of myself that I would never get round to otherwise.

- Peter Cardy is chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support.

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