Blog Careers Shadow programs give employees a peek into leadership roles
Published on: July 17, 2023
5 min read

Shadow programs give employees a peek into leadership roles

Shadow programs are a great resource if you’re looking to explore new roles, expand your skill set, or learn how decisions are made.


Have you ever wished you could see into your manager's mind or understand the nitty-gritty details that make your organization run smoothly? Well, that's exactly what corporate shadow programs can do for you. They enable you to tag along with senior colleagues during regular workdays. You can witness how they tackle tasks, make decisions, and interact with various stakeholders. It's like getting a peek behind the scenes of your organization.

At GitLab, we host several shadow programs, including one that lets you learn from GitLab CEO and co-founder Sid Sijbrandij. Each program aims to give team members a deeper understanding of different parts of our company's operations and processes. The experience empowers individuals to connect their work to the company's broader goals and gain valuable skills for their professional growth. Shadow programs benefit mentees, mentors, and organizations.

The following are some benefits of a shadow program:

Insight into decision-making processes

Shadow programs can act as your backstage pass to the operational aspects of your organization. As you gain more insight into how your organization works and how decisions are made, you may start to appreciate the complexity that goes into keeping things running. Knowing how all the pieces work together will improve how you collaborate. At GitLab, shadows are able to observe GitLab values in action: Collaboration, Results, Efficiency, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging, and Transparency.

From the perspective of operating the company on a daily basis, I was witness to how decisions were made at the leadership level of the organization. There were e-group meetings in which different topics were discussed, from mergers and acquisitions and sales compensation plans to hiring and team member morale. I was impressed by the camaraderie, collaboration, and great rapport among members of the e-group. Decisions were taken only after a thorough discussion had taken place and everyone was encouraged to participate.

Collaboration with leadership teams

Members of your executive team can sometimes feel like distant figures in your organization. Shadow programs put employees together with executives and other leaders, making them feel more approachable. This connection not only strengthens bonds across various departments and cultivates a positive work environment, but it can also inspire the shadowing employees to feel confident enough to pursue leadership positions themselves.

The CEO shadow program is such a great way to give team members insight into how the company works, while also making the company feel more inclusive, and its top-level team members feel more approachable. While I’ve always found Sid to be friendly and down to earth, I know that some people are afraid of approaching their manager with something, let alone someone at or near the top. I somewhat jokingly said to someone that it’s a good reminder that our executives are 'real' people.

Personalized learning opportunities

Shadow programs at GitLab offer personalized learning opportunities. You can learn on the job from experienced team members, oftentimes from those with roles above yours. The experience is incredibly valuable, as seen from many of the reflections that GitLab team members have written about their shadow program experiences. The program fosters open communication, creating a pathway for better knowledge sharing across teams.

Shadowing also provides an opportunity for employees to be exposed to new situations and learn new skills.

In this meeting, a variety of different vice presidents and engineering managers discussed error budgets, reliability, and security. The [service-level agreement] requirements, security issues, and corrective actions were discussed. We went over what issues are currently affecting our error budgets and must be remediated. Root causes were analyzed and then a plan was made for remediation. This has shown me the efficiency of having all the information on a single document and then discussing proposals to correct. This makes the meeting flow much easier than not having any data beforehand.

Cross-functional interactions

With a shadow program in another department or role, you will get the opportunity to experience work outside of your immediate team circle. The exposure can help broaden your understanding of the overall organization and how other teams work. You can develop new skills that prepare you for future opportunities. The relationships you build as a shadow across different groups will also stay with you after the program.

As an open-source contributor, I had some understanding of how GitLab worked. But during the shadowing week, I got to see the inner workings of the company, how teams collaborate, and how the company operates at scale.

How to start a shadow program

Here are some tips to help you start a shadow program at your organization:

  • Set clear expectations and guidelines for the program
  • Arrange flexible schedules that suit both the mentee and the mentor
  • Encourage open discussion and feedback
  • Ensure the program is tailored to meet the needs of participants
  • Implement confidentiality guidelines to protect sensitive information
  • Define the tasks for the participants, such as note-taking or updating the handbook
  • Determine the time commitment of rotations
  • Create opportunities for shadows to contribute such as helping to complete tasks

Check out our shadow programs for examples of how to structure them:

More resources:

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