The onboarding opportunity

We’re in the midst on onboarding two folks to the Network Team at USV — one new full-time hire and one temp who’s stepping in to cover for a colleague on maternity leave.

This has never happened before.

As you might expect, onboarding takes a lot of work. There’s no such thing as a USB drive for your brain; you can’t just download your knowledge and upload it immediately into somebody else’s head. And so, this act in itself, of collecting the information that might be useful for a brand new person to learn, feels like a very healthy way to “clean up the house.” All of the sudden, we’re asking ourselves, “What does this look like to a new set of eyes? How might we make this easier?”

Onboarding is also an incredible opportunity to crystallize the things that are really important to you and the team. If something you designed can’t be explained (and eventually managed) by someone else, it’s probably not built to scale. And so, with every new piece about the puzzle that is the USV network that I explain, another realization strikes:

“Oh, why have I been organizing these files that way?”

“Okay, good. Our objectives do seem pretty tight and easy to understand.”

“Huh. I have no idea why we worked on that project.”

Onboarding forces you to tell your story, and to invite others to see their place in it, too. This perhaps is the most important element of all — not just to hand off what exists, but to demonstrate the space there is yet to fill.

When I left Stack Overflow after four years, I was obsessive about documenting every single thing. I made a robust spreadsheet that linked to files and folders of every single project that I had worked on. I sent it around to everyone on my team as well as select folks in other parts of the organization. I shared documents with people who I thought might need them, and I updated the training I used to conduct for the sales team with the latest of my work.

But even two years after I left, I’d still get the occasional email from a colleague new to the marketing team:

“Hey Bethany,” they’d say. “Someone told me that you did some research here about customer buyer personas. Do you happen to have that handy?”

I was floored. How was it possible that somebody couldn’t locate any of the documentation from a project that I’d spent more than a year working on? Where was everyone who had been on the receiving end of my intense spreadsheet? How come nobody had shared it around?

It’s only then that it hit me for real: Just because something exists on paper doesn’t mean it’s understandable (or replicable). And while I did do a fantastic job at documenting every single component of my projects, I failed to do one critical step: Loop other people into my workflow in real time.

Sure, the files existed. But handing over those documents is similar to what it’d be like to find a stack of notes from a course you took in college and hand them off to a new freshmen: On their own, they are completely non-translatable.

The opportunity with onboarding is to truly integrate new people into your brainspace and adapt the workflow at the same time. It’s not just a chance to clean the house; it invites a new way of arranging the furniture inside, too.

Originally published at Dry Erase, my personal blog and digital whiteboard.

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