If you like the idea of someone playing Boswell to your Samuel Johnson, dogging your steps and hanging on your every word, you and Jeff Bezos have something in common.
In the late 1990s, Amazon's visionary founder and chief executive created a new position – that of his "shadow," someone who would follow him around, join his meetings, and serve as a sounding board for his at-times impractical ideas. "I was a receptacle for him for any of the 19 ongoing activities in his brain that didn’t have a place in the normal organization," Stig Leschly, an early shadow, told Bloomberg Businessweek. "It was honest to God one of the most extraordinary things a young person can do."
Over time, as shadows came and went, the position became more organized. According to Businessweek, Amazon executive Andy Jassy is the man who made the position what it is today. "I asked Jeff what success would look like," he told Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (Little, Brown and Co., 2013). "He said success would be if I got to know him and he got to know me and we built trust in each other." Jassy became Bezos's "quasi-chief of staff," Stone reports.
After two years of following Bezos around, Jassy was the CEO's pick to head up Amazon Web Services, a division that Ben Schachter, an analyst with Macquarie Capital, estimates will rake in $3.8 billion in 2013. Thanks to successes like that, many of Amazon's other senior executives now reportedly have their own shadows.
And Amazon is not the only company to employ an executive shadow. In fact, Bezos got the idea from Amazon investor John Doerr, who saw how well it worked at Intel when he worked there decades ago, according to Businessweek.
Having such a close confidante holds obvious appeal for busy CEOs. So, should you let a bright comer be your shadow? The potential benefit is twofold. You will gain a valuable check on your thinking, and a high-potential employee will be groomed for leadership, both of which benefit the company as a whole.
On the other hand, you may end up training your competition, if the employee decides to seek an executive position elsewhere after shadowing you. But that is a risk with every employee, and the closeness of a shadow position presents an unmatched opportunity to inspire loyalty. Maybe the question should be "Can you risk not cultivating a potential star?"
Would you appoint someone from within your company to be your shadow? Why or why not? Sound off in the comments below.