When you’re in a leadership role, it’s easy to think that you know what it’s like to be in a specific position in your company or work with a client because you once did that job. But with the pace of change in all aspects of business, it can be easy to lose sight of what it’s like to be in specific positions. With that continued distancing from the other roles on your team or organization, you can start to lose your edge as a leader. You lose your edge because you lose empathy, which is a cornerstone of great leadership. So, what can you do about it, and why does it matter? One way is to continue to make time to shadow peoples’ roles or learn to perform their job yourself. If you do this, you’ll be a stronger leader because you gain the following three things: humility, perspective, and stronger relationships, leading to great empathy. Empathy is a key determinant in leader performance.*
Recently I went to a client’s production site with one of our programming teams. We were changing out some of the hardware. Then, we had to test every piece of equipment to ensure it communicated correctly, indicating that we programmed and installed it right. This also means we shut down production at the client site to do this testing. As any client would be, they were eager to get things up and running again to continue producing.
Here’s what I learned during this “job shadowing” experience:
- Humility. When I was in college, I took mostly liberal arts-type classes. I couldn’t even tell you where they taught programming. So, when I was invited to come on this site trip with the programming/panel shop team to help rewire a panel, it was definitely something I had never done before. For 6 hours in 90-degree heat, I was given step-by-step instructions on safely and properly transferring wires from old cartridges to new cartridges. As a leader, who is often looked to for answers, this was a humbling and rewarding experience. Since I didn’t have the background to understand much of what I was doing, I had to trust my trainer. I ask others to put trust in me every day. Like me at this site, they don’t fully understand or have viewability into some of the organizational decisions I help make. The level of trust leaders ask of others should not be taken for granted. Like my trainer did for me, leaders should be experienced at explaining and teaching things to those who have limited context.
- Perspective. A stressful situation occurred where our client and an Interstates team member were getting frustrated trying to communicate via radios while testing out equipment that wasn’t working properly. The client was noticeably irritated talking on the radio. I could tell no Interstates employee was eager to talk to him. An uncomfortable amount of time started to pass with no one speaking to each other over the radio. The client was upset. And that’s when an unexpected moment of leadership-in-action occurred. A newer programmer walked over, picked up the radio, and calmly suggested to the client that we all take a break - that it was time for a shift change anyway. The client, probably a little surprised to hear a new voice, responded calmly with “10-4,” and the tense situation passed. The rest of us stood there looking at that young programmer, impressed by her willingness to step into the stressful situation to diffuse it. In those few moments, I witnessed some of the stressful situations that occur with the projects and the opportunity they create for new leaders to emerge.
- Relationships. One of the greatest benefits of traveling and doing this job shadow experience was witnessing how this cohesive team functions. For a few days, I was able to operate as one of the team members. Some team members were new like me, but others had worked and traveled for years together. No matter the differences among team members, everyone was included during the workday and even for dinner. At Interstates, we have a family core value which refers to caring about your own family and caring about each other as family. When people travel together, you see this family value show through more than any other time. I saw that this team wasn’t just a group of colleagues but a tight-knit group that went out of their way to show they cared. It reaffirmed my understanding and deep desire to make sure everyone at Interstates also has an opportunity to experience our family core value firsthand.
It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to be a part of someone’s world through a job shadow experience. Most people don’t have this opportunity. And for leaders that do, unfortunately, they may not realize the value of these experiences. Job shadow experiences are some of the best opportunities for leaders to sharpen their leadership skills and empathy - learning from those who deliver work directly to our clients.
*Why Empathy Matters & How to Encourage Empathetic Leadership
Danielle Crough, PhD
Vice President of People and Culture