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Onboarding in Tech: Molding Culture, Building Trust, and Having Fun

Last week, I attended an event hosted by MassTLC and General Assembly: You’ve Got a New Team Member, Now What: The Tech Community’s Guide To Onboarding. In included presentations from BreeAnn Biederman, Learning & Communication Specialist at Acquia, Heather Carey, Senior Manager of Employee Success at Constant Contact, and Katie Burke, VP of Culture & Experience at HubSpot.

Wow! That’s a lot of Tech & Talent horsepower. Not surprisingly, the event did not disappoint and it was chock-full of juicy advice on taking onboarding to the next level.

(Want slides from the event? Here you go.)

(Need a primer on onboarding? Think it’s the same as orientation? Here you go.)

For me, there were three themes that emerged from this onboarding event:

Theme #1: Molding Culture

Culture is a big word. It was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2014. Many a tech company aspires to build a strong culture. But, what does it mean? If you’ll forgive the brief academic interlude, Robbins and Judge define organizational culture as “a system of shared meaning held by members that distinguishes the organization from other organizations.”

Okay, so what does it mean in the context of onboarding? During her presentation, Katie Burke said that culture is a “proactive catalyst to help employees make better decisions,” later adding, “the best employees don’t just follow the culture, they impact it on a day to day basis.” She also explained how Dharmesh Shah (co-founder and CTO of Hubspot) often uses this refreshingly simple yet powerful analogy:

culture : recruiting


product : marketing

Following from this, a sub-theme that emerged during the event was that culture creation is not an entirely top-down process. It may be the responsibility of senior leaders to communicate culture (and some, like Stewart Butterfield of Slack, take this to the extreme), but molding that culture is everyone’s responsibility.

Culture is a living, breathing thing that takes the shape of its context. Onboarding is not only an opportunity to introduce and acclimate new team members to a culture, but it’s also an opportunity for existing team members to further mold that culture.

Theme #2: Building Trust Through Transparency

Another, perhaps more subtle, theme that emerged was that onboarding is a way to begin to build trust. The ladies gave several examples of how this could be achieved, most which involve being transparent.

For example, new hires can be given the opportunity to speak with many people throughout the organization, from the founders to the C-suite, and from department heads to engineers and sales representatives. At Acquia, they have Mentor Circles, which are led by executives. At Constant Contact, new team members are given the chance to live and breathe the customer experience and to learn the product inside and out. At HubSpot, transparency means lots of things, including showing everyone the numbers — retention #’s, sales $’s, and survey results.

Building trust is a process that needs to happen slowly, so why put it off? Being transparent with new employees on Day 1 (or even before) starts the process early and establishes the norms for doing it often.

While there were serious moments during this onboarding event, all three presenters showed that at their companies, they’re serious about having fun. And this came through in examples of the onboarding activities they shared:

  • At Acquia, instead of (boring) Lunch & Learns, they have Cognition Kitchens, which encourage peer-to-peer learning on a variety of topics. (I know it’s really just a name change, but doesn’t it sound so fun?!)
  • Acquia also has Customer Ride-A-Long’s, which have a 75% participation rate. (Again, it’s a great way to re-frame what could be a boring “Customer Appreciation Event.”)
  • One last example from Acquia: New hires take a videos of themselves doing Acquia’s elevator pitch. They encourage people to share and spark a little competition.
  • At Constant Contact, instead of doing the standard company tour, they do a Scavenger Hunt.
  • Constant Contact also does a Leadership LiftOff where a panel of senior leaders present 25-minute TED-style talks.
  • I also heard Heather from Constant Contact suggest that they set up people’s desks for them before they get there. This is a great gesture to create a welcoming atmosphere. Perhaps the desk can be outfitted with a Nerf gun? :)
  • Katie from HubSpot explained how they use stories and examples to reinforce culture.
  • Employee Handbooks are boring and overwhelming. Enter: The HubSpot Culture Code: Creating a Company We Love. (Katie reported that it’s received over 2 million views, so it’s clearly striking a chord.)
  • At HubSpot, they don’t “match mistakes with rules and regulations.” Instead, as Katie explained, they “iterate relentlessly.” Rules and regulations? Not fun. Learning from your mistakes and trying again? Game on!

In sum, what are three ingredients that help build successful onboarding programs?

  1. Cultural integration
  2. Transparency
  3. Fun

Sounds like a great recipe to me! What will YOU add to make it your own?

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Written by

Career Coach for Tech Managers. I help tech managers upgrade their careers, their teams, their paychecks, and their lives.

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