This is an excerpt from the upcoming e-program entitled, Intersections: Four Deliberate Interactions That Infuse Ingenuity Into Your Mission. The four intersections are: hiring talent, onboarding to the party, coaching for continuous improvement and correcting for change. In this excerpt, we explore scaffolding a new hire. Scaffolding is also important at the coaching and correcting intersections. But here it’s framed as a way to support a new employee.




No matter how talented a new hire may be, he or she will need help to be successful. If you ignore a new hire because you think the onboarding process is “easy” or she is, “smart enough to figure it out,” you are jeopardizing success. There are two kinds of help that can increase the likelihood of a new employee’s success: basic support and scaffolding. We’ve already talked about basic support in the section on maps, paths, and guides. Let’s consider scaffolding.


Scaffolding is a very specific kind of support. It has roots in early childhood development. The concept goes like this. When young children are about to make big progress in a certain area of development (like walking), they need a specific kind of support to breakthrough to the new skill. Take learning to walk as an example. When a young child is learning to walk, a parent often provides scaffolding by holding the child’s hands above her head. You’ve seen this right? What’s going on when a parent does this? Well, the parent is providing the balance and stability for the child so that she can focus on moving her legs. The parent takes care of part of the skill so the child can focus on a different part. Then, more of the action is shifted to the child until she’s got it all under her control. That’s scaffolding.


You can also think about scaffolding as a structure–like the kind that supports a painter while he paints a house. The scaffolding provides stability, height, and ease of access to the wall. The painter then can focus on painting. 


When a new hire is learning new skills, it’s hard to remember all the elements of the job and keep it all moving forward. The new hire might be able to handle certain parts of a skill but fail on other parts. This is when scaffolding is critical.



The Two Elements of Scaffolding


  1. “Segmenting” complex tasks and/or information is the first element of scaffolding. If a new hire is learning skills or assimilating large amounts of organizational information, break up that skill/knowledge into chunks. The manageable chunks allow the new hire to focus on smaller segments, making mastery more likely.


  1. Co-action is the second part of scaffolding.  After you’ve segmented the work, have a more seasoned   colleague perform a portion of the task, while the new hire focuses on a different element. This             provides the new hire with a smaller task supported by a more advanced colleague (doing the other     part of the task).


Consider these examples…


The leader of a marketing firm recently hired a new accounts manager. The new manager will eventually manage all of the account activity for an entire portfolio of clients. Now imagine that there are a dozen primary duties connected to the account management process. These could include activities such as managing brand development, creating action plans for social media, approving promotional materials, setting up media shoots, monitoring results and more. A new account manager may fail if he was expected to manage all 12 activities all at once. A smart leader would give the new account manager a few of the activities and have a more seasoned manager do the remaining activities. Over time these remaining actives could be transferred to the new manager as she is ready for them.


Here’s another way to scaffold.


Consider the same new accounts manager (from the example above). In his new role, he is struggling with information management. He is unable to coordinate the numerous deadlines and details that emerge from his accounts portfolio.  The leader of the agency pairs him with a seasoned account manager. The senior leader asks the seasoned manager to temporarily schedule all of the new manager’s photo shoots and join his client meetings. She further asks the seasoned manager to temporarily lead the “scheduling of events” portion of the client meetings. This will allow the new manager to focus on getting to know the client. It will also allow him (the new manager) to observe the more seasoned manager schedules client work–learning how to manage multiple deadlines and timeframes.


The way you scaffold depends on your mission and the job


There are scores of ways you could apply the scaffolding concept to the world of a new hire. Take the concept and apply it to your situation, your mission. You will find that scaffolding a new employee –while simultaneously requiring her to take on more of the work– will increase success and likely move the employee more quickly to competence in all areas of her job.