Get Immediate Value from Your New Hire
There are many theories on how to correctly “onboard” someone to an organization or a team. Most focus on how to provide the new hire with the information and skills she needs to succeed. But that can only take her so far. She will need connections and an understanding of the inner workings and culture of your company to be truly successful. Whether she is transitioning from another part of the organization or is brand new, you can get her up to speed more quickly by going beyond the basics and explaining how things actually get done.
What the Experts Say
According to Michael Watkins, the Chairman of Genesis Advisers and author of The First 90 Days and Your Next Move, there are four domains that new hires need to master: business orientation, expectations alignment, political connection, and cultural adaptation. The last two are often the hardest for managers to convey, and yet the most critical for the new person to understand. Watkins’ research shows that lack of cultural adaptation is the most common reason newly-hired managers fail. “It’s also the hardest area for managers to provide good advice, in part because they are embedded in the culture and not necessarily reflective about it,” he says. Jon Katzenbach, Senior Partner of Booz & Company, author of The Wisdom of Teams, and co-author of the forthcoming Leading Outside the Lines, notes that “a lot of onboarding focuses on the formal side of the organization and is programmatic.” But helping new hires understand the informal side of the organization will accelerate their acclimation. Follow these three steps to get your new employee productive faster.
1. Start early
Onboarding really begins with hiring. Start as early as possible in the process to expose your new hire to the organization’s or unit’s culture and to explain how work gets done. While selling your organization in the interview process is key to recruiting the right person, don’t risk his eventual success by not being upfront about how things truly work. “The starting point is to recognize that the best onboarding process can’t compensate for the sins of recruiting,” Watkins says. Be honest and don’t allow your vision of how you wish your company operated to confuse your communication of the reality of the situation.
Always recruit for cultural fit as well as skills and experience and identify transition risks, such as capability gaps or tenuous relationships, before the new hire starts. If he is transitioning from another part of the organization, don’t assume that he knows the culture. Companies, even small ones, often have different ways of doing things across units or functions.
2. Get them the right network
“The first thing a manager can do is ensure that the new hire understands how important the informal or ‘shadow’ organization is in getting things done,” Watkins says. It is your responsibility to explain this, but she will only truly experience it by meeting her colleagues. As soon as she starts — or even before — introduce her to the right people. “If the informal organization is really important, then the manager can accelerate the new hire’s political learning process by identifying key stakeholders and helping to establish connections,” Watkins says. Katzenbach suggests creating an “indoctrination inventory that includes meeting the people recognized as valuable resources for understanding how to make the organization work for you.”
You also need to be sure early in her new job she meets with “nodes” or “culture carriers” — people who others go to for different kinds of information and insight. These won’t necessarily be the people who have the highest rank or best title; instead they may be may be particularly connected middle managers or administrative assistants who decide when key meetings are held and who gets invited. “One simple way to do this is to identify ten people that the new hire really needs to know, explain to the new hire why they are important, and send messages to these stakeholders asking them to meet with the new hire,” Watkins says. If you don’t know who these people are, ask around or create a network map that helps you identify the “go to” people in your organization.
3. Get them working
This may seem like a no-brainer for bringing new people on board. Yet many companies start off new hires with a stack of reading and a series of trainings. Giving them real work immerses them in the way things function at the organization. This doesn’t mean you should let them “sink or swim”; definitely provide the support they need. Katzenbach recommends putting them on a real team where they can work on a real business problem. “Get them in working mode rather than a training or student mode,” he says. Doing this instead of busy work exposes them to the company culture, introduces them to the ways things get done, and helps them to begin making the critical connections they need to productively contribute.
Principles to Remember
- Hire for cultural fit as much as for capabilities and skill
- Introduce your new hire to “culture carriers” and “nodes”
- Explain how work actually gets done at your organization
- Let a new hire stay in “learning” mode for too long
- Assume your new hire can’t be productive from the start
- Rely on the org chart to help explain lines of communication
Case Study #1: Working within the first five minutes on the job
Michelle Pomorksi, started her job as a contract programmer at the software design and development company Menlo Innovations after an intensive hiring process. Within five minutes of walking into the office in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Michelle was working on a project. This wasn’t an “onboarding project” but a real one for clients. She was “tripled” (that’s company lingo for teamed with two other people) and sent off to a client site to do interviews. Rather than observing, Michelle actively participated and was expected to contribute by asking questions.
Rich Sheridan, founder and CEO of Menlo, thinks he has created a unique process to get new people productive faster than at other software companies. Every new hire is immediately paired with a current employee to do design and development work, in what the company calls “paired programming.” Pairs are switched every week so by the end of the first three weeks, a new person has three mentors to rely on for advice and help. Even better, after the initial three weeks, she is ready to mentor someone new. “The real power is in the pairing,” Michelle says. “There isn’t one day I’ve gone to work that I haven’t learned and taught at least one thing.”
The process is facilitated by an open work space: Menlo doesn’t have offices, cubes or doors. Rich thinks his hiring and onboarding strategy gives him an advantage over competitors because he can seamlessly expand and contract his work force according to client demand. It also makes employees enjoy a task they might otherwise dread. He acknowledges that onboarding this way requires careful attention to how pairs are put together and a good deal of orchestration. But he does not see it as a loss to productivity. “I probably get four times as much work done with two people pairs than most people get with two individuals,” he says.
Case Study #2: Start early and see the whole picture
Pat Lee, a top Marketing Director at Johnson & Johnson Asia, happily received a promotion to Vice President of Marketing. But, she was not fully prepared for the suddenness of the promotion and all that it entailed, including relocating to a different country. She immediately began planning the logistics of the move: deciding which town to live in, exploring job prospects for her spouse, investigating schools for her children. She expected to have all these details worked out in advance so that she could “hit the ground running” on her first day in the new job.
However, Joe, her HR business partner, urged her to begin the transition to the actual job before she made the move. He suggested she take a “transition risk assessment” to help her better understand the challenges she faced in the new role. This helped Pat to fully see the situation she was getting into and better understand herself. It uncovered several issues: she had never worked in another country before; she had never taken on a regional role; she had minimal understanding of how her company did business in other countries; and she had little knowledge of the people on her new staff, the office politics, and how things got done. She also didn’t know what her new boss expected of her and what phase of operation her businesses were in — start-up, turnaround, downsizing, optimizing on-going, etc. She realized she needed to address these problems and so with Joe, developed a Transition Acceleration Plan and started working with a coach, who helped her by interviewing her boss, direct reports, and colleagues to get honest feedback about their expectations. Doug Soo Hoo, former Director of Learning and Development at J&J, explains that this intense process is “a good way to get out of ‘sink or swim mode’ and an investment in the company that also shows a caring for the success of the individual.”
After three months on the job, Pat’s boss and her peers gave her rave reviews on how quickly she had mastered the “ins and outs” of the new situation and taken actions to address them. One of her new reports said it was almost as if she had been in the division for years.