How to run a successful onboarding buddy program

Growing your team's open culture, one buddy at a time

Want to scale your open culture during periods of intense organizational growth? Consider a buddy system.

Growing your team's open culture, one person at a time
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We've all been there. You're starting a new job, and you don't even know where the bathroom is, much less all the tools and processes necessary to get that job done. Onboarding in an open organization can be even trickier because of its unstructured environment and open culture. It may be up to you to define your role, and priorities can change quickly. Finding an "onboarding buddy" (or "onboarding peer") can make the transition into your job much less painful.

Any new hire can benefit from an onboarding buddy, and I would recommend establishing this role in any organization with an open culture. I'll explain what an onboarding buddy is and tell you how onboarding buddies work at Red Hat, the open organization where I work. Then I'll offer some tips for setting up a buddy program in your own open organization.

Creative chaos

In The Open Organization, James Whitehurst writes:

An open organization inspires, motivates, and empowers people at all levels to act with accountability. The beauty of an open organization is that it is not about pedaling harder, but about tapping into new sources of power both inside and outside to keep pace with all the fast-moving changes in your environment.

This kind of environment is a wonderful place to work, and it provides people with ample space for creativity and change. But with that creativity comes a certain level of chaos. An onboarding buddy can provide new hires with useful stability. Remember the buddy system from summer camp or your school's field trip? Just like back then, onboarding buddies stick with new hires to ensure that they don't get lost in a new place or situation. Always stay with your buddy!

Take my own department, for example. It's constantly evolving. Our departmental organizational chart was actually the brainchild of a colleague who wasn't even a manager at the time she created it. It's been effective, but as is the case with any open organization, we all had to be comfortable with redefining our roles and relationships. Newer people needed the security of a buddy—someone who would stay with them even as the organization metamorphosed.

Everyone needs a buddy

Steve Bream was kinda my onboarding buddy when I started [on the team] in May. I'd likely be curled up in a little ball in an enclave somewhere rocking back and forth if it weren't for Steve.—Marci Wolfe, Content Strategist

So what does an onboarding buddy do?

Officially, your buddy educates you about your organization's day-to-day processes, helps you acquire the supplies you need, and introduces you to your department and team. Your buddy can even tell you who the local bigwigs are and help a bit with job training. However, your buddy should not be someone who is responsible for goal setting or professional development—those are your manager's responsibilities.

Unofficially (and more importantly), your onboarding buddy should be someone who can relate to the culture shock you're experiencing and who won't think your questions are silly. "As a new hire, you're probably feeling a little insecure," said Dana Kahn, a manager at Red Hat, who established the onboarding buddy program in her group. "If you have a buddy who is more on your level, that gives you a safe space."

But onboarding buddies have another important function, one that's absolutely critical in open organizations especially: Fostering and maintaining passionate community.

Any new hire can benefit from an onboarding buddy, and I would recommend establishing this role in any organization with an open culture.

As teams grow (adding new people from various companies and with differing backgrounds), they might struggle to maintain their levels of passion and investment. An onboarding buddy system helps your organization "pass along" its cultural genes to each new hire. Buddies can help new hires stay focused on mission in an open environment—instead of being overwhelmed by all the possibilities.

When your organization has an open culture, one of your most important goals should be building a community. And the best way we can build a community is by making friends. Assigning onboarding buddies to new hires helps them make connections, meet people, and make friends. Those personal connections are what keeps an open organization strong.

Being a great buddy

At Red Hat onboarding buddies are most common in groups where the company is hiring people into similar roles. I work in Customer Content Services, the group that writes technical documentation for our products, and we've increased significantly in size in the last few years—so an onboarding buddy program has been essential for us.

So far, it's working. "I was nervous about really feeling like I was part of a team and getting my bearings. But Aron [Gunn, my onboarding buddy] made such a big difference in my onboarding experience," said Erin Donnelly, a new technical writer on our team from Boston. "He was readily available and willing to help me whenever I ran across an issue, and he was patient with my learning curve."

But with that creativity comes a certain level of chaos. An onboarding buddy can provide new hires with useful stability.

Another of our new writers was having trouble because her brand new office had been the coffee shop for the floor. Her assigned desk was covered in coffee paraphernalia and also needed a good scrubbing. Her buddy came to the rescue. Even though he was working from home that day, he drove into the office, tracked down the coffee klatch, and talked to them. Her buddy smoothed over what could have been some pretty awkward social wrinkles, so she didn't have to fight for a desk that was already hers. His actions supported her in her new job—he had her back.

I was lost, too, when I first joined Red Hat. But my Onboarding Buddy, Christian Huffman, made a difference. He didn't get annoyed when I had unenlightened questions about Linux. He always knew where I should go when I needed a subject matter expert for a project, help with hardware and software, or a cup of really good coffee.

Characteristics of an awesome buddy

From stories like these, we can develop a list of the qualities that make a great onboarding buddy:

Patient. An excellent onboarding buddy can answer questions without making new hires feel foolish. A buddy also has to be willing to answer the same question more than once. Learning frequently takes place as a spiral: As new hires begin to understand more, they will revisit something they're learning but at a deeper and more complex level. Buddies need to be willing to have multiple (but deepening) conversations about similar topics.

Approachable. The new employee is probably feeling completely overwhelmed. If you're an onboarding buddy, you need to let new people feel that you can take care of them, and that you can always be accessed and don't mind being interrupted.

Helpful. An ideal buddy works with new associates to help them find answers to their questions and to show them the best ways to approach problems in an open organization.

Proactive. Buddies need to reach out to their new hires daily. And they need to do more than just ask, "Hey, is everything going okay?" Buddies have to be willing to ask probing questions. As one associate told me, "Some of us (and we shall remain nameless) won't admit we're lost unless pointedly asked if we know where gramma's house is. I attribute it to fear of failure. Yep even during onboarding, some would rather squirm for days than say, 'Hey, I don't get it.' Nothing worse than being new and assuming all of your questions are things you should have known when you got hired."

Compassionate. A good onboarding buddy remembers what it was like to be new and wants to help alleviate that pain for the new hire.

I would also advise you and your team to cultivate multiple excellent onboarding buddies in your organization. Being a good buddy can be emotionally and intellectually exhausting, not to mention time-consuming. It's a good idea to divvy up the job. Don't burn out your best buddies!

Also be sure to thank them for what they do. One of the most precious attributes of an open organization is that people say thank you. Be sure to include that.

You may already work in an open organization. Or you may be trying to open up your current company. Either way, onboarding buddies can help you create and preserve that open culture. This practice can help you build and nurture an open community, as well as construct a network of people who care deeply about each other and your company.

"Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one.'" ― C.S. Lewis

About the author

Headshot of Ingrid Towey wearing a chaperone hat and houppelande
Ingrid Towey - THE WRITE UX! Ingrid combines technical writing with UX (User eXperience) skills to create documents that are easy to use and to design user interfaces that don't need tons of documentation. Ingrid has experience in many areas: technical communication, usability testing, UI prototyping, field interviews and ethnography (yes, there is a business use for an MA in Folklore), user-centered design, training, homeschooling, and more. She has dabbled in many things and is curious about almost...