Trading places isn't just for reality shows anymore. Now C-suite executives, seeking fresh ideas, are switching jobs with counterparts, both at other companies and inside their own.
FORTUNE — One morning in May Nadim Hossain drove to work, sat in a weekly sales forecast meeting, met with the marketing team, and gave feedback on ad messaging. Only it wasn’t his office, his job, or even his company.
À la the TV show Wife Swap, Hossain, then vice president of marketing at San Francisco-based PowerReviews, was in the midst of an executive job swap. He traded roles for the day with Jon Miller, VP of marketing and co-founder of San Mateo, Calif., software firm Marketo, hoping to gain some insight into his own role by experiencing someone else’s.
It worked. Since PowerReviews — now owned by Bazaarvoice — is a Marketo customer, Miller came away better understanding the issues facing chief marketing officers. Hossain, for his part, returned to PowerReviews with pages of notes on ways to motivate his sales team, woo big brands, and identify leads. “A fresh environment is always a good way to generate new ideas,” Hossain says.
A job swap may not yet be commonplace, but it reflects a marked shift in how today’s leaders learn. Executives are increasingly seeking outside help, whether it’s hiring executive coaches, collaborating with peers, or trading jobs for the day. Says Paul McDonald, senior executive director at staffing services firm Robert Half: “Old school was ‘Keep it in-house and keep your secrets to yourself.’ Executives today, the good ones, are going out and getting help.”
Switching roles is most common among rank-and-file employees: An estimated 38% of employers offer cross-training of some kind, according to a 2012 survey by the Society for Human Resources Management. Now the C-suite is looking to build skills in much the same way. That was the case for Dharmesh Shah. The chief technology officer at Boston Internet marketing firm HubSpot.com traded roles with Paul English, the CTO at Boston travel company Kayak.com, one day in April. Shah wanted to learn more about how to recruit top engineers to his fast-growing startup.
He came back to work with a plan to copy much of what he saw at Kayak. Among the ideas: “the couch rule,” which requires every employee to greet and chat with anyone sitting in the lobby, and “the red-phone rule,” which randomly sends customer-support calls to the engineering department; anyone nearby must answer the customer call regardless of what he’s doing. Shah and English both plan to do swaps again elsewhere. “I know I will get mileage out of it for the rest of my life,” Shah says.
But job swapping comes with risks. There’s the grass-is-greener threat that your own team might actually like your replacement better than you. Also, it’s time-consuming: Miller admits that he felt guilty leaving his team when his company was planning projects.
The biggest worry, however, is confidentiality. Concerns about privacy would squelch any external swap for Jay Miletsky, CEO of online video startup MyPod Studios. “Any company has its own little trade secrets,” says Miletsky. Instead, he changed roles with a developer in his own office for a day.
That’s the same approach taken by Sunil Verma, chief business development officer at mobile-ad company Velti. He trades jobs every quarter with fellow C-level executives to boost teamwork and improve communication. He even used it to help solve a dispute between two Velti sales managers, making them switch roles for a day last January. They came away with an understanding of the demands the other person faced; that led to a truce.
Steve Cody, CEO of New York PR firm Peppercom, had the same kind of revelation when he traded places with junior-level employees, including his receptionist, a junior account manager, and an account supervisor. He cleaned conference rooms, hung up coats, answered phones, and wrote press releases. The experience made him understand the stress of entry-level jobs. “It’s like being inside a videogame — there’s an explosion of information and data whipping into your laptop and phone,” says Cody.
As a result, Peppercom is more sensitive to work-life balance. Cody lets employees work an extra day from home each month. “We are much more employee-friendly than we were five years ago,” he says. “If you’re open to a swap, you’ll come out of it a much better leader.”
This story is from the October 29, 2012 issue of Fortune.