donna karlin is a shadow or observational coach for executives to improve self-awareness
donna karlin is a shadow or observational coach for executives to improve self-awareness
donna karlin is a shadow or observational coach for executives to improve self-awareness

Shadow Coaching Gives Executives an Up-Close Look at Themselves (Part II)

Q & A with Donna Karlin and Bruce Wilson

Bruce: As a shadow coach, what do you do for your clients?

Donna: One of my clients described being shadowed as "having a TV camera with live feedback".

I typically stay with a client for 5 full work days, plus a 2 hour initial interview, plus a full day follow up a month later.

First I establish a time management system with them. The first few days there is more observing, particularly observing them in meetings and other interactions, and less interaction between myself and the client. Unless there is something critical that I have to mention right away, we have a debriefing at the end of each day where I share my observations and find out what the client's goals are in these areas.

I also provide ongoing support, guidance and motivation through e-mail and follow-up days, weeks or months later.

Before I start shadow coaching a client I interview them. I don't do standardized assessments. I find out a lot about them on a personal level, the last thing they read, the last movie they saw, what they're living [what their life is like] at home, etc. In the end the only thing that matters is: who do they want to be?


Bruce Wilson interviewed executive/observational coach Donna Karlin of Ottawa, Canada to find out more about her work "shadow coaching" executive-level leaders, including some within Canadian government Ministers' offices, to help them improve their job performance.

Bruce: Who does shadow coaching work for--what sort of people?

Donna: Shadow coaching is for someone who interacts with others, whose interaction with others is important to their success, who has responsibility for vision of a department, who is a leader or who wants to become a leader, like the head of a unit. Or anyone who wants to get ahead in their job.

Team building can be part of it. For example, I can shadow a group in the morning, then 2 people from that group, 2 at a time, in the afternoon, with individual, confidential debriefing for each.

Bruce: Are there any gender differences that you've noticed that affect the success of coaching?

Donna: No

Bruce: Does it matter how big the organization is?

Donna: No

Bruce: What are the indications, signs or symptoms that shadow coaching is a good solution for an executive to implement?

Donna: When someone has potential leadership skills and/or wants to grow and develop all of the leadership skills they need, or when someone is having problems with their leadership and wants to improve. Improvement can be made with or without "red flag" problems or "being stuck" somehow. In fact, people who are better off to begin with are going to make even more progress.

Bruce: Are there any potential negatives, any side effects, that one should know about before hooking up with a shadow coach? In particular, have you had any "casualties," have you had any situations where somebody reacted badly to finding out so much about themselves?

Donna: No, I've never had any casualties as you call them; but dramatic, sudden progress can bring its own set of problems. Some people suddenly got promotions or other radical changes that can bring temporary upheaval. It's analogous to people who win the lottery. When somebody gets more attention for doing what they do, and have more free time, more than they are used to, it's initially outside of their comfort zone.

Bruce: How important is confidentiality? Can you be hired by someone's boss for the purpose of reporting what you see to the boss?

Donna: I don't do that. Confidentiality is always essential. There are no exceptions to keeping the confidentiality of my shadow coaching clients. They can't get results without trust, which they can't get without confidentiality. But I will observe a team while it's interacting and report observations about team dynamics to the team leader, nothing about each member specifically. I can only do this by establishing client relationships with the individual team members. Very often, I shadow more than one person in the same group, and observe their meetings together. In feedback I can focus more on areas of overlap, but still can't and won't divulge any confidences.

Bruce: Is there embarrassment associated with being shadowed?

Donna: People are usually self-conscious for the first hour or so, then it disappears.

When a client has a meeting and introduces me, I tell them to ignore me. Sometimes if I'm working with CEO a memo goes out telling people who I am and to ignore me. And of course they don't ignore me but they understand my role that way. But the end result is that other people don't think it's about THEM, they understand I'm there about my client.

Bruce: What kind of long-term follow-up do you do?

Donna: We always spend at least an hour to 1/2 day together a month later to see how well things are ongoing. I also recommend bringing me in once a month or every six weeks for 6 months or so. I also randomly e-mail clients (without charge, of course) to help keep them thinking about our work together so they stay self-aware about how well they are doing with their goals. Sometimes I e-mail and schedule followups out of sequence just to keep them motivated but not threatened because they are aware of me.

Bruce: Sounds a bit like what B.F. Skinner called a "random reinforcement schedule, " which can be a very useful learning tool.

What mechanisms are involved that make shadow coaching effective?

Donna: Self awareness is the key to leadership and change.

Before I start shadow coaching a client I interview them. I don't do standardized assessments. I find out a lot about them on a personal level, the last thing they read, the last movie they saw, etc. In the end the only thing that matters is: who do they want to be?

Some people are very happy where they are, and don't want to be promoted, others want to be the CEO some day. The question we need to answer is, how do they need to change, how are they going to get there? With shadowing we become aware of where they are now, their present strengths and weaknesses, then we start making changes from there.

I start from the top level in the department to get their buy-in and approval before going on to other levels.

I don't tell clients what they should do, I tell them what they are doing. Then I say "what's going to be more beneficial for you?" And I can say: "is this going to work better for you, or this? Do you think you'll benefit if you delegate more? Can you rearrange this to spend less of your time on it? Can you cut your schedule?" The general goal is give them the power to do a better job in important areas rather than a mediocre job in every area. They LOVE what I do, feel energized and empowered by our work together.

For example, we can go though everything on the schedule, look at personal responsibility, hours committed, then finally look at their free time and the new project that they want to introduce - for which we can now see there is only 1 1/2 hours a week available, in 15 minute blocks!

Bruce: Can you give us a quick example of someone you worked with and what the long term consequences were?

Donna: Ok, here's good one. I've worked with a number of middle level employees who after a year of off-and-on work with me became directors. One of these clients wanted to become a director, but hadn't realized before we started together that she was doing things like never looking others in the face while talking to them. We had lots of work to do. She's now head of her group.

Another example: I worked with a high level leader who worked very hard and was unhappy, but didn't know what to do about it. We came up with something that radically changed his life. He simply started taking lunch dates with his wife. That little change made a huge, huge difference in his life. He's much happier now.

On one occasion I was brought in for...a possible harassment issue. I discovered the problem was the layout of the office, someone who was vision and partially hearing impaired, he became frustrated when he couldn't hear a particular support staff member, became more and more frustrated as their interaction went on, and was perceived as rude by her. All that was needed was simply rearranging the office to have her facing him when she spoke to him. I would never have known that without shadowing him. You can't do that coaching over the phone.

Bruce: Or in just a conference room meeting, I guess.

Donna: Body language is key.

I can also see and point out positive things like great rapport with employees.

Bruce: How long have you been shadow coaching?

Donna: Since 1999.

Bruce: How many shadowing clients have you had?

Donna: Approximately 50.

Bruce: Any famous people who have had a shadow coach that you are aware of?

Donna: No celebrities per se other than high levels within the government.

Bruce: Are there other names for Shadow Coaching?

Donna: Yes. Observational Coaching, though I call it Shadowing.

Bruce: Couldn't anybody be a shadow coach?

Donna: A lot of people would have trouble keeping their mouths shut during the day. The focus is on the client. It's not to take the client's focus away from his/her work. Also, a lot of coaches say they don't have the energy. It takes an incredible amount of energy to stay focused on the client's every interaction, behavioral pattern, habit and effectiveness. It's the subtleties that speak volumes to a shadow coach.

But I learn so much from the immersion and interaction with my clients.

Clients even invite me to office parties, etc. Some attribute a lot of their success to working with me.

Bruce: Does shadowing always work?

Donna: Establishing trust is an important step. One client especially fought me every step of the way. At the end some people say "I'm doing this while you're here but don't expect me to do this after you leave," however they still make some progress, and get primed for more progress, taking baby steps. They may be ready for bigger steps later.

an interview with Donna Karlin by Bruce Wilson


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