Want a better transition? Find your prison buddy.

In the majority of organisations, the bulk of the transition support responsibility falls on to the direct manager with a some of the hygiene aspects sitting with HR / P&C.

In some organisations, in addition to the direct manager and HR’s intervention, the leader-in-transition also gets a mentor or buddy. This is someone who works with the leader but probably not directly for them or directly above them. This person’s role is to help the new leader navigate the unwritten aspects of the organisation. A sort of culture Sherpa.

In my research I encountered many organisations who had a stated buddy program, but the reality was they were very ineffective for two main reasons. Firstly, the activities, actions and outcomes where vaguely stated, ‘just sort of help them around, you know, so they don’t get stuck or frustrated’. This vague directive makes it an optional exercise which leads to the second reason, people are too busy to ‘buddy’. No one has any redundant time for optional activities. They try at first and then say things like, ‘if they have a question, I am sure they will come and ask’. The new leader knows the buddy is very busy, doesn’t want to be a burden and so uses them sparingly or as a last resort.

What emerged in the research was the effectiveness, where possible, of a third person, an alternative buddy. I am yet to see this as a stated design aspect in any organisation’s onboarding program, and it’s not always achievable, but when a leader-in-transition was connected with another leader at a similar state of their transition, the relationship had an extremely positive effect on their transition. This brother- or sister-in-arms was the easiest person for the leader to go to for help and the shared emerging knowledge benefited both parties. Also, where there was no clear answer, the fact the neither knew boosted the confidence that they should ask.

One of my clients referred to this recently as a ‘prison buddy’.

Clearly, they were not describing their organisation as a prison, but you get what they mean. It’s the, ‘hey you’re new, I’m new, we better stick together and figure out how things work around here’.

Obviously, there are some logistical barriers to the prison buddy program. It will not work well with the CEO or enterprise level roles but at most other levels in large organisations there is likely someone who is new enough to fit the role. New leaders will also have more bandwidth to be available and the rewards of the effort are shared.

What I suggest to large organisations is that they play with the start dates of leaders to try, where possible, to land them at similar times. If this is not possible, grabbing the next newest person can still work. Then create specific opportunities and interventions to develop the ‘prison buddy’ relationship plus articulate that this is a key part of the leader’s onboarding program.

The prison buddy could be considered the fourth leg on the onboarding stool with a supportive direct manager, involved HR/P&C and a culture mentor / buddy.

Something to consider in your organisation?

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