How to fix your on-boarding program

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I’m a weird person, and I have weird thoughts as I walk down the street, and yesterday was no different. It was slightly after work and I was going to meet my wife for a meeting. Completely based on nothing, here’s what entered my head:

Companies spend a ton of money on hiring and recruiting. What happens to that employee on Day 3 of actual employment, especially if his/her manager is bad?

Ah, yes. Onboarding. (Or “on-boarding”). I don’t work in Human Resources, so you may assume — via the silo’ed culture of American business — that I don’t have thoughts on this topic. You’d be wrong. To wit:

That’s some of the stuff I’ve written before. Here’s a new approach.

Fix Your Onboarding Program: Your First Steps

Start with three basic assumptions if you can (more on that in one second):

  1. The only truly sustainable competitive advantage is your culture.
  2. Poor fit with the culture is the No. 1 cause of new hire failure, far and away.
  3. Effective onboarding is the way you reduce the risk of bad hires and assimilate people into your culture.

From the above, No. 1 is the hardest for people to understand — especially old-school, Type-A male managers. “Culture” isn’t on a balance sheet, so you can’t sit in meetings and breathlessly discuss it. Most people assume their greatest competitive advantage is:

  • Their products
  • Their services
  • Their business plan
  • Their margins
  • Their KPIs/data

Almost everyone who rises up in a company tends to list those things ahead of things like:

  • People
  • Ideas
  • Staff
  • Training

Right here, that’s the essence of the problem. We over-inflate the importance of financial metrics — which change hourly sometimes — and we under-inflate the importance of human beings who work hard for you. We have “whale” segments among our customers, but very infrequently do we see that among our employees.

You need to shift that thinking if you want to be successful with new hires and bringing them in.

Here’s the second tier I’d bring up: “The Busy Trap.”

Most managers — especially middle managers — are all about the busy trap, and running around telling everyone how much is on their plate. I get all the psychological reasons for that — it’s a drug, essentially — but you absolutely cannot do this on a week when you have a new hire.

This is what people always seem to forget: when someone starts a new job, they are often nervous, scared, etc. It’s almost like switching schools as a kid. You need to understand how you fit into everything. You need to understand what the company does and what it prioritizes. You can’t just get the song-and-dance routine that the CEO wants you to get. You need to begin to understand the company at an organic level.

That starts with your manager.

Do you know how awful it is to start a new job and, on Day 2, already have your manager barely paying attention to you? I switched my life for this fucking job, and you’re just pretending I’m some temp or something? Sadly, that’s happened to me about 4–5 times.

So here’s your two takeaways from this section:

  • Understand culture and its value
  • Stop hiding behind being busy, if just for a week or two
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Fix Your Onboarding Program: Actual Things You Can Do To Onboard Better

Let’s run down a few:

  1. Discuss actual job goals in the first 2–3 days: What would success look like in this job? What would failure look like? How will the success actually be measured?
  2. Ask one simple question: “What do you look like when you’re at your best?” Open with that. Let the new hire run down what makes him/her feel good, how they like to work, how they like to meet, how often they like feedback, what types of projects they enjoy, where and what they want to learn, etc. Make notes on these ideas. Bring them up. Utilize them.
  3. How does the company make money? Companies essentially only exist to make money, give or take, or to raise money or awareness for something. It’s amazing to me how many on-boarding processes don’t involve a discussion of “Hey, how does this company make money?” It doesn’t need to be led by the CFO or anything, but let’s set a rule: you can’t manage others if you can’t explain how the company you work for makes money. Good? Yea. In the first 20 hours of employment, any new hire should have a good to very good understanding of how the company makes money.
  4. What are the cultural values? This is typically buzzword bullshit city, but still … it needs to be run through. What do people value? What’s the mission statement?
  5. Who does what in your department and other departments? People are unbelievably bad at describing their jobs to new hires — “Well, you know, coordinating a series of tasks and deliverables for the higher-ups…” — but it’s really valuable to understand who does what at a company. It makes your work life easier, and it makes it so that people step on each other’s tasks less.
  6. How does your job relate back to the bigger purpose of the department and company? I’ve had lots of jobs, and I’ve never once — ever! — had a manager explain this to me. If you really think about it, OK … obviously I’m doing the job for a paycheck. I get that. But … if I have absolutely no idea how my work relates to the bigger work, why would I care about the work I’m doing? It just seems like everything is in a vacuum. That’s not good at all.
  7. What should you achieve in the first week or month? I think companies should use a “Passport” system for onboarding. Basically, there’s things you need to hit — meet someone from another department, go to a senior leadership meeting, attend a happy hour, etc. I am sure there are legal concerns that would make people lose their minds here, but it gets to the core problem, which is…
  8. Most people think of onboarding as a 2–3 day experience; it needs to be more. You don’t transition into a new relationship based on just the first two days. It evolves. So does your relationship back to jobs and companies. So shouldn’t onboarding be dynamic, as opposed to being static?

In sum, then, it’s kind of like this:

  • Define who the employee is
  • Define why the employee is valuable to the org (why you allocated headcount for the role)
  • Define how the employee and manager will interact (feedback, processes, etc.)
  • Define when it’s going to keep going until (it’s not just a first-week event)

If you start with those tenets, you should be OK. It requires a lot of buy-in upfront — people don’t tend to care about people or talent issues; they tend to care about products and customers — but if you can jump off from a point of “Our culture does matter, and can sustain us” and then move to “Let’s treat this new hire like a valuable part of this team even though he/she hasn’t hit any targets yet,” it’s doable.

Any other tips?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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