There comes a time when every community/team/organization must onboard new members to maintain vibrant resiliency while avoiding the pitfalls of isolationism and nepotism. Community is a fickle thing. You’d think we’d be better at this considering America as the cultural melting pot. Somehow though I’ve never received any formal training or discussion on the importance of initial conditions in the team building process. For those of you preparing to enter a new community, understanding what you need to get from the onboarding process to be a successful community member is critical. For those of you preparing to welcome a new member to your community, understanding what you need to do to facilitate the onboarding process is critical to the future success of your community. This is a two way street. You’ll get to go both ways eventually, the sooner the better.

For the onboardee

Congratulations! You’ve been selected and are about to be welcomed into a new community. You can learn SO much about an organization by how they onboard you. Did they open with:

  1. Survival: Something? Anything?
  2. Tribal: Swag? The Family? Rights of passage?
  3. Authority: Tradition? Meet the boss? Org-chart?
  4. Legal: Keys? A checklist? Access/log-ins? Trainings?
  5. Performance: Metrics? Goals? Heuristics? Resources?
  6. Community: Meal with the team? Meet and greet through the community?
  7. Systemic: Hopefully a little of all of the above?

What your Sherpa onboarder is (hopefully) doing is exposing you to the primary values that support the community/system. The most important thing for you to realize is EVERYTHING IN THE COMMUNITY IS THAT WAY FOR A REASON. Don’t be the classic arrogant engineer that enters a community and immediately assumes everything before you is junk and you can do better. Of course you can! How you go about doing better is the key.

Remember that the most important thing is the realization that everything in the community has a reason, not all of which are either good or bad. It’s your job to find out what those reasons are. This takes ASKING many, many questions and LISTENING to many, many answers. This is the reason I’m a big fan of onboardees and onboarders co-creating an onboarding plan as recommended in the book Onboarding by George Bradt and Mary Vonnegut. This act of co-creating the plan identifies gaps in the onboardee’s understanding of the community and gaps in the onboarder’s plan.  The plan is basically to develop an understanding for everything I mentioned in the list above. Didn’t get all of the items from the list above? Schedule a meeting with your onboarder, ask lots of questions and complete your own onboarding plan.

One of the biggest challenges facing the onboardee is finding the right mentor. Your mentor is someone that knows you and genuinely cares about your personal needs and development. Your mentor will be key to your community. If you haven’t considered the mentor-mentee process (which parallels this discussion) you should read this post: Mentoring and the Sage at the Top of the Mountain.

For the onboarder

Congratulations! You’ve been selected by your community to fulfill the critical role of onboarding new members. You can learn SO much about your new members by how they onboard into your community. This is a complex challenge that has many phases you need to consider:

  1. Preboarding — getting your plan together well in advance of the onboard date. Most organizations have a recommended system for onboarding that is a great place to start. WSU’s content is great and can be found here: The site includes checklists, an onboarding schedule, as well as a set of guiding principles for onboarding. You should consider this in advance of an offer letter.
  2. Boarding — make sure the community knows that your onboarding a new person so that folks are ready when you go on the community walk around. Have a set of example materials and questions for the onboarding process ready for your onboardee. You’re goal is to address most of the values from the list above, in a way that is natural for the onboardee. Straight from the WSU guiding principles for onboarding — know what information is most important to deliver first: 1) information that personally affects the onboardee, like what to wear and where to park, 2) things that affect the onboardee as a team member such as who they will be working with and how their work will be assessed, and 3) general information about the community/university’s goals and missions. Note that this is a multi-day to week-long process.
  3. Follow up — many of my friends highly recommend a 100 day to year-long process for onboarding. This time is to provide follow up, checkups, and assessment of progress. No shortage of recommended timelines on the web. Pick one that makes sense for your community.

Remember that your community is full of blind-spots — things that everyone has normed to that are ultimately holding back the community. Every person you on-board has an influence on fixing these blind-spots and the community as a whole, including the potential to become your boss or the CEO, if not of your company then potentially a competitor/future employer. Your onboardee’s success is very sensitive to the initial conditions you start them with.