At This Shelter, Any Employee Can Shadow Any Other Employee for a Day

About a year ago, the APA Adoption Center—a 100-year-old nonprofit, open-admission shelter with a government contract to serve St. Louis County in Missouri—launched a new program called Show Me How. 

Any employee, in any department, could shadow any other employee for a few hours. That includes top leadership, front line animal care staff, adoption counselors, veterinary staff, and so on​​. Anyone can shadow anyone.

The program was launched as part of an effort to improve the organization’s culture, says CEO Sarah Javier—who’s since found Show Me How has not only done that, but in turn is helping the organization’s animals. 

Sarah spoke with us by email about how Show Me How works, what it’s done for the APA Adoption Center, and how other organizations can start a similar shadowing program of their own!

HASS: What exactly is Show Me How? 

Sarah Javier: At the APA Adoption Center we recognize that it is helpful for members of the team to better understand how the various roles throughout our organization fit together. A Show Me How is an opportunity for employees to shadow any other person in the organization to learn about their work, or perhaps learn a specific skill. 

This applies to all roles within the APA for both shadowing and being shadowed. For example, any employee could choose to shadow the CEO or our COO to learn about their day-to-day work. The CEO can also shadow others, perhaps to learn about how adoption counselors complete an adoption or how animal care staff groom a pet. 

In addition to better understand the roles of others, it also helps create connections between people who may not regularly interact.

HASS: What inspired this program? 

Sarah Javier: A positive, supportive culture is important to the APA. A couple of years ago we participated in an in-depth survey process to better understand our culture, how satisfied our team members were with various aspects of their job and the organization, and then we took that data and worked with a consultant to train both our leadership and staff on psychological safety

As part of this, we determined that providing opportunities for people to learn more about one another’s work, we would further improve our culture and create a workplace where people felt safe, supported, and team-focused.

HASS: How does Show Me How work as a practical matter? How do you arrange the shadowing; how many hours does it go on for; does it take place during a regular work day; etc? 

Sarah Javier: Show Me How opportunities generally last about 2-3 hours and take place during the work day. All employees are paid for their time doing a Show Me How experience. 

Our COO, who is credited with launching this program, coordinates Show Me Hows, and after employees complete a brief survey that helps identify the things they want to learn about, she takes care of the scheduling.

HASS: About how many people have participated so far, and who has shadowed who? 

Sarah Javier: Approximately half of our staff have participated. We tend to choose times of the year when operations are a bit slower (so NOT summer!) so we have temporarily paused these and will resume in the future.

We are a $4 million organization with approximately 40 employees. We have had people shadow adoption counselors, animal care staff, and also learn specific skills, such as handling dogs or how to conduct a playgroup. I have not yet done one but definitely plan to. Many members of our leadership team have participated, as we feel it is important for leaders to see and experience firsthand the work members of our team are doing. This also helps members of leadership build stronger relationships and open lines of communication with team members at every level of the organization.

HASS: How do you think this benefits your shelter and its staff and animals?  

Sarah Javier: The Show Me How experiences have helped build more collaboration among the entire team, as well as more compassion and support from team members. We’ve noticed that people are more quickly offering to lend a hand or being more patient when someone can’t respond to a need right away. 

This has helped improve the employee experience which has further improved the culture as a whole. When you create a positive, supportive work environment, your customer experience naturally improves along with it. This, of course, benefits the animals in many ways.

HASS: Are there any downsides?  

Sarah Javier: No downside, just some challenges with scheduling, which can always be overcome with some flexibility and creativity. For example, there have been times when members of leadership have stepped in to cover an employee’s role during the employee’s Show Me How experience. We understand it is important, so we make it work.

HASS: Has it led to anyone applying for a new job at the shelter, or other changes for your staff and shelter? Do you think it leads to more job satisfaction and retention? 

Sarah Javier: Not only has it led to people exploring other opportunities within the organization, but it has also helped us identify some potential needs. 

When employees look at a position or job with fresh eyes, they sometimes share ideas that the people who do the work every day may not have thought of. Employees have responded very positively to this opportunity and it appears to have improved job satisfaction and retention. In fact, when we did a follow-up satisfaction survey one year after the initial survey, there were great improvements and specific mentions of the Show Me How experiences.

HASS: Would you recommend other organizations give this a try, too? If so, what are some tips you’d give, for getting started? 

Sarah Javier: Absolutely! Buy-in from leadership is important. Everyone needs to understand why you are doing it and what you hope to achieve. You should also have a way to measure whether or not it is accomplishing what you set out to do.
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