New Employee Onboarding: Lessons From Philmont Scout Ranch

new employee onboarding

The onboarding process is one of the most important experiences your new employees will have at your company. It’s a way for you to welcome them with open arms as a valued new member of your organization’s culture.

If done well, your new hires will feel important, supported and immediately motivated to do their best work for you and your organization. When left as an afterthought, however, new employees may end up feeling undervalued, unsupported or even ostracized from the rest of your team.

Like many companies, gothamCulture aspires to be better at the way we bring new members onto our team.  We are constantly refining our onboarding process to make team members feel welcomed by the team and get them the information and resources they need to quickly ramp up.

Surprisingly, one of the best experiences I’ve had recently around onboarding came from a backpacking trip with my son. While you may not think the two are related, there are some critical lessons to take away from this recent experience.

Onboarding, Culture and Philmont Scout Ranch

Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, NM, is the oldest Boy Scouts of America (BSA) high adventure camp. It sits on over 130,000 acres of New Mexican wilderness. They have welcomed over 1 million ‘customers’ to date, including 22,000 scouts and advisors over this summer alone. They have over 1,000 employees to help make this an adventure of a lifetime for many of those scouts.

With so many new visitors travelling their backcountry, Philmont must have an effective, consistent, onboarding process in place. It is this process that has kept Philmont and its culture as an enduring legacy since 1939.

Here is how it works:

 Arrival

Like any new team member, you are excited to be on board but aren’t quite sure what you are supposed to be doing. In most cases, you have come by plane and then bus to get dropped off at the welcome station. There, a staff member welcomes you and asks your crew to form a pack line (just line up your backpacks against one another on the designated post).

You are then introduced to your Ranger (in our case Ben), who will be your mentor at Philmont and accompany you for the first two days in the backcountry.  They give you some basic orientation, answer any immediate questions and arrange to meet you at the mess hall for dinner.  After you get your gear all put away at the tent city, there is some downtime for scouts to visit the trading post to buy ice cream and soda.

Takeaways:  Constant communication is key for new employees. On their first day, they need some direction as to what they’re supposed to do. But, don’t overwhelm them with a constant barrage of orientation. Allow some downtime for them to digest information and informally get to know the rest of your team.

The Day Before Heading Out

The morning before heading out, you’ll meet your Ranger at the mess hall for breakfast. Afterwards, they take you on a tour of basecamp and get the required stops out of the way: logistics/registration, medical pre-check, equipment and initial food pickup, and facilities like the post office and lockers.

After lunch, they meet you at your tent cabins and pull absolutely everything out of your packs to show you what you need and what may have been unnecessary to bring. Though they might have the best of intentions, for example, scouts generally don’t need to carry 5 lbs. of m&m’s in their backpack for the next several days.

The night is capped off with a welcome campfire program, where they introduce you to the history of northern New Mexico, Philmont and the scouting legacy. The evening ends like every campfire program; the Philmont hymn, which, like the Philmont prayer before meals, is another reinforcement of the Philmont culture.

Takeaways:  Onboarding requires a few different things in order to succeed. You need to educate your new team members on the policies and procedures of your organization. But, in order to instill a sense of belonging, you should also fill them in on some of the company lore that exists below the surface. Stories are a great way to communicate your culture—from the history to current traditions—they can help make your new hires feel as if they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

On the Trail

At your first camp, your Ranger introduces you to the ‘bearmuda triangle’:  the red roofed outhouse, a sump for dumping smellable liquid waste and the bear cable. You don’t camp inside the triangle and usually try to set up your tents in previous tent spots to minimize impact. Your Ranger then shows you how to hang your bear bags and takes you through the first meal. Lessons include how to sterilize cookware, prepare your meal, and cleanup before getting the crew down for the night.

The next morning, you pack up, make a wonderful breakfast of snack bars, pop tarts and/or instant oatmeal. Meals may seem like a brainless routine, but during this time, our Ranger was constantly showing the boys how to follow ‘leave no trace’ and, in the case of the bear bags, reinforcing the idea behind them as protecting the bears. New Mexico policy is to tag a nuisance bear twice and then kill it, so the point is that the scouts know they are helping to possibly save a bear when they follow these rules.

Finally, each night they do ‘roses, thorns and buds’ – this is a chance for every scout and advisor to tell the crew what they liked about that day, what they didn’t like and what they are looking forward to the next day.

Takeaways:  Hands-on mentoring with a combination of demonstration and delegation helps each team member learn to follow the processes and execute them competently. Regular check-ins are a chance for the team to build camaraderie while making sure your new team members are engaged in the process. From beginning to end, constant communication is key to success.

The Rest of the Journey

On the last night together, your Ranger hands out wilderness cards to each scout and asks them to think long and hard before signing them and committing to protecting the wilderness (they also, at their discretion, share a Sara Lee pound cake and tub of icing that they have been hauling along, depending on how good of a crew you have been).  The next morning your Ranger is gone and the crew is on its own. In our case, we were on our trek for another nine days, hiking for over 75 miles and seeing some of the most beautiful backcountry there is. We stayed at trail camps and staff camps and got to enjoy some great campfire programs. We had our ups and downs as only a group of thirteen and fourteen year-old boys can, though we didn’t descend quite to the level of Lord of the Flies and managed to bring everyone back without any major injuries.

Takeaways: While mentoring and constant check-ins are important to ramp up your employees, empowerment is truly tested when they are on their own. At the end of the process, your team should be ready and able to carry on the behaviors and values that make up your company culture.

Lessons Learned

I have never met someone who went to Philmont and not described it as one of the best and most memorable experiences of their lives. I did not have the chance to go when I was in scouting and took this as an opportunity to bond with my son (and maybe show a fourteen year old that I am not as old as he thinks…). I hope that in future years he will look back and remember the experience fondly as well.

From an onboarding perspective, I have to admire the way the Philmont takes in hundreds of scouts on a daily basis, plugs them into the program and gets them on their way into the backcountry, all while instilling them with the idea that they are doing something awesome. Scouts know they have a responsibility to their teammates, and to Philmont, to dig deep and be the best team member that they can be.

How are you instilling these kinds of values into your onboarding process?

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Mark Emerson

Finance Director at gothamCulture
Mark has more than twenty years of accounting and general management experience. He is a serial entrepreneur, having started or helped grow five different companies. He is known for his ability to think outside the box and is skilled in all facets of operations.