Rising up with Adobe Women’s Executive Shadow Program

Over 800 women at Adobe have experienced a day-in-the-life of an executive, providing them a new perspective on team leadership.

In 2013, Emmy Huang stood up at an Adobe and Women networking meeting in San Francisco and presented her plan to give women at Adobe the opportunity to be paired with and learn directly from executives. Then, she asked for volunteers to help run the pilot of the program. Five women raised their hands, marking the beginning of the Women’s Executive Shadow Program at Adobe (WESP).

Eight years later, WESP has given over 800 women at Adobe the opportunity to experience a day-in-the-life of a cross-functional executive. Participants have described this now annual program as motivating, inspiring and giving them a new perspective on team leadership and engagement. The program has expanded with independent programs throughout local offices in North America, India, and Europe.

Networking with a purpose

The idea for WESP was born in 2011, when Huang was nominated by Adobe to go through the year-long WOMEN Unlimited leadership program. To fulfill a project requirement of the program, Huang’s cohort discussed project opportunities, “We talked about networking and how hard it was for us. I’m an introvert and it’s not something I do naturally. We got onto this topic of networking - with a purpose.” One of the members of the group was from Cisco, where an executive shadowing program had begun several years prior. Huang’s WOMEN Unlimited cohort decided to use the learnings from Cisco’s programs, combined with their own interests to focus their project on developing, “a toolkit or playbook that could be used by any company to evaluate launching an executive shadow program and how to do it effectively,” explains Huang. Two years later, Huang along with five volunteers piloted WESP at Adobe, using the WOMEN Unlimited cohort’s toolkit. It included, “The application and interview process, and training. Our goal was to get participants prepped and ready so they show up strong for their shadow day,” Huang said.

The pilot of five was a success. That same year, the volunteers rolled out WESP to North America, carefully selecting 22 applicants to pair with 22 executives. Over the years, as the volunteer base has grown, WESP has increased the number of women accepted into the program, with 133 pairs matched in 2020 (when the program continued virtually amidst the pandemic).

Jean Doyle, now a senior engineering program manager, is one of the original five volunteers for WESP and part of the three WESP leadership members that oversee the program.

Doyle, like most of the volunteers that support WESP, is passionate about what the program can do for Adobe Women. She shares how WESP impacts her day-to-day job, “[WESP] allowed me to build a North Star for what I’m looking for in terms of the team that I work with. I have used it for every job decision since then. The program and what I’ve learned from it has helped me to make decisions or decide what to go for in my career.”

Courtney George, a senior design manager, and part of the original WESP leadership trio, shared that what makes WESP so exciting for her is the opportunity to network and train with other women. “It’s very rare that we are ever in a room with fifty other women at Adobe from all different parts of the company.”

Learning from the right executive match

One of the goals of WESP is to get as many Adobe women through the program as possible at the right time and with the right match. The WESP volunteers have specific selection criteria for applicants to ensure that participants and executives both get the most out of the program and their match as possible. This includes professionalism, preparedness, stong communication skills, the ability to display thoughtfulness and goal alignment with the WESP program.

Erica Carr, Microsoft alliance manager, and one of the three members of the WESP leadership team says, “We invested in the Executive committee early on so that we would have great executive relationships. We didn’t want to randomly pair people - we wanted it to be very calculated and custom.”

George explains that the process of matching an executive to an applicant is manual and done in such a way to ensure the matches are thoughtful- looking at the goals both the applicant and the executive hope to get out of the program. Participants want to observe leadership skills from the executives they’re matched with such as team management, communication, decision-making, delegation, customer interaction.

15-year Adobe veteran and Creative Cloud international principal project manager Ginna Baldassarre, a 2021 recipient of the Adobe Founders’ Award, didn’t make it into WESP the first time she applied. However, the time was right in 2018, when Baldassarre reapplied and was given the opportunity to shadow CHRO Gloria Chen. “I was absolutely stunned,” she said of her WESP assignment. “My day with Chen was incredibly eye-opening.”

One experience Baldassarre shared was learning that even though women are encouraged to lean in and “show up” in meetings, that the rule should be followed with careful thought about the context of the meeting. After one meeting where Chen played the observer role rather than active participant, she explained to Baldassarre afterward that, ‘My role was to play mediator if I needed to do so.’ Her advice, in Baldassarre’s words, was ‘Think about your role going in [to a meeting].’ Says Baldassarre, “Watching how she interacted with people was the biggest benefit I got from the day.”

Janelle Kim, a 2020 WESP participant, waited until she felt she was ready to get the most out of the program to apply. She was paired with executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary Dana Rao. The match was a surprise to her as Rao’s field in legal was very different from hers in product marketing. It ended up being exactly what she didn’t know she needed.

“2020’s WESP was held virtually because of the pandemic, and as such, I was able to split the shadow across multiple days and meetings to really get a better sense of a day in the life, and what goes into Rao’s role”, Kim shared. “It gave me a view beyond my expectations - to experience his role from his unique perspective.”

Kim was keen to find out how Rao structured and balanced his day, by wearing multiple hats across many business units, constantly switching from one to another throughout the day. Finding out more about Rao’s career path was also a goal from the program for Kim.

“When it came to professional advice, [Rao] told me to think about my career in 3-year increments and suggested a deep check in with yourself to ensure you look at the bigger picture, that you’re happy in your role and both providing and receiving value. It reminded me that not everything can be accomplished in a single year and that it’s important to stay intellectually curious – understanding the ‘what’ and ‘why’ to continuously learn and grow.”

Kim has also made it a priority to maintain her professional connection to Rao, long after the program ended. She was able to cultivate a new opportunity, in addition to her current role, on a task force Rao was leading, and credits WESP for the opportunity to network with different parts of the business.

The WESP flywheel

WESP would not be the active shadow program it is today if it were not for the volunteers behind the scenes. From the beginning, WESP has attracted motivated women who often also want to give back to the program as volunteers. Today, WESP is run by over 70 volunteers on six WESP committees.

Says Huang, “This program benefits people so much that it’s just a flywheel of people that want to keep paying it forward.” The success of WESP can be summarized in the type of women that WESP expects to attract and select each year. WESP gives an opportunity for women that are willing to, “raise their hands to put in the work and the effort to develop their careers.”