Set up new hires for success

12 May, 2022

How well are you using onboarding to help new employees flourish?

Many companies have onboarding programs in place. The basics of onboarding – filling out forms, understanding policies, meeting with team members – are reasonably well handled. However cultural familiarisation, relationship building and team integration rarely receive the focus they need. According to a global survey of senior executives who had recently transitioned into new roles, the primary cause for failure was an incomplete understanding of organisational culture and team dynamics.

Interestingly, most companies assume that they integrate new hires pretty well. However, the employees themselves seem to feel differently.

A Gallup survey found that only 12% of employees felt that their company did a good job of onboarding new hires. That means a whopping 88% remained unsatisfied with the experience.

These numbers are cause for concern. After all, a poor onboarding process leaves companies highly vulnerable, especially at a time when the Great Resignation is sweeping across the corporate world.

So, this week, my message focuses on how managers can set up new hires for a long and successful tenure with the company. What can you do to strengthen the onboarding journey and better support new employees?

Even at the best of times, onboarding is a tricky process. Every new hire, no matter how experienced they might be, will need to adapt to an unfamiliar organisational culture. They will need to understand how things really work and forge key relationships in order to feel like they’re part of the team.

This transition period is tough: there is so much to learn – and so much to unlearn! It comes as no surprise that many new employees feel insecure and vulnerable during the first few weeks and months. Those who have relocated face the double challenge of dealing with changes at the workplace and in their personal life. Those who have moved up a rung on the ladder will also need to acclimate to their new leadership responsibilities.

Without a strategically designed onboarding process, these employees are likely to feel lost, disconnected and unable to contribute effectively. No wonder weak onboarding is linked with high rates of disengagement, poor performance and quick turnover.

Strategies for onboarding

It is vital for managers to take a leading role in onboarding efforts. Not only do they have a key stake in the success of new employees, they are also best-positioned to support them during this crucial period. It is the manager who knows precisely what the new team member needs – in terms of skills, knowledge, resources and relationships – in order to succeed at the organisation.

Here are 10 ways for managers to support new employees and equip them for success. Many of these steps are also useful for internal moves, especially across units and geographies.

1. Begin before Day 1.

The time between an employee accepting the job offer and starting work offers a valuable window. Managers can use virtual platforms and tools to share materials such as a welcome video, initial documentation, the schedule for Week 1 and a snapshot of the planned onboarding journey. This way, your new team member will feel much more at ease when they walk in on Day 1. 

2. Facilitate team relationships.

Strong equations with peers lay the foundation for long-term job satisfaction and success. Managers should formally introduce the new hire to their team, explaining why they have been brought on board and outlining their role. Also highlight the expectation for team members to help their new colleague learn the ropes.

3. Accelerate network building.

Besides immediate team members, new hires will also need to connect with a variety of key stakeholders. It is up to the manager to facilitate these connections and ensure that the new employee’s network is coming together. Start by drawing up a list of relevant names, supplemented with explanatory notes – these should ideally be discussed at a one-on-one meeting. Make the necessary introductions personally, then schedule a check-in after some weeks to review progress.

4. Provide connection with the CEO.

A meeting with the CEO, whether one-on-one or in a group setting, is a great way to create positive impact, foster a sense of belonging and inspire commitment. In smaller companies, it may be possible to do this over an informal coffee (virtually or in person). In larger organisations, managers will need to get creative. Consider a company townhall with new hires, or a social gathering that includes the C-suite. All of these are good ways to demonstrate that new team members are seen as an important part of the company’s future.

5. Focus on learning over doing.

For new hires, the initial sense of vulnerability can play out in two ways. Some may become rigid and fixed in their approach, preferring to stick to what they already know in order to minimise uncertainty. Others might overcompensate by acting as though they already know everything!

To nip these issues in the bud, managers should repeatedly emphasise learning over doing during the onboarding period. This will create the necessary space and comfort for new team members to ask questions, air doubts and absorb “the way things are done”.

6. Address learning gaps.

As explained in a Harvard Business Review paper by Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, the onboarding journey should cover three main areas:

  • Technical learning is insight into the fundamentals of the business, such as products, customers, technologies, and systems.
  • Cultural learning is about the attitudes, behavioral norms, and values that contribute to the unique character of the organization.
  • Political learning focuses on understanding how decisions are made, how power and influence work, and figuring out whose support they will need most.

Structuring your onboarding programme around these dimensions will enable new hires to get up to speed quickly and become fully functioning members of the team.

7. Establish a “buddy system”.

This may sound like an obvious suggestion, but it is usually overlooked. A tenures employee can offer valuable support, including access to cultural norms and unspoken rules. An HBR article on this topic neatly sums up the key benefit:

Context is a precious commodity. Without it, a new hire will likely struggle to fully understand their role or how to contribute to their team’s success. Onboarding buddies can give the type of context you won’t find in the employee handbook. 

The frequency of meetings with the buddy is also important. A pilot programme at Microsoft yielded the following findings: 

The more the onboarding buddy met with the new hire, the greater the new hire’s perception of their own speed to productivity: 56% of new hires who met with their onboarding buddy at least once in their first 90 days indicated that their buddy helped them to quickly become productive in their role. That percentage increased to 73% for those who met two to three times with their buddy, 86% for those who met four to eight times, and 97% for those who met more than eight times in their first 90 days.

8. Set clear expectations.

While certain job expectations may have been mentioned during the hiring process, it is critical to revisit these once employees begin work. New hires should to be crystal-clear on the following aspects:

  • What do I need to do? Goals, time frames, metrics to assess progress.
  • How should I do it? Strategies, priorities.
  • Why am I doing it? Company vision and mission, part played by employee. 

9. Provide longer-term support.

Companies tend to severely underestimate the time required for new employees to reach their full performance potential. A Gallup report found that new hires take around 12 months to become proficient in their roles. Yet, the average onboarding programme lasts no longer than 3 months – after that, many managers take a “sink or swim” approach.

Instead, what we need is a culture of ongoing support and learning. This can come in the form of regular check-ins, continual coaching and periodic assessments. If you see a new hire struggling, intervene early in order to resolve the issue. The longer the challenge persists, the harder it can be to reverse.

10. Elevate the status of onboarding.

The support of influential senior leaders, who function as guides and mentors, can be a valuable aid for new employees. Keeping this in mind, organisations must strive to shape a culture that prioritises onboarding. When contributing to the transition process is viewed as a value-add, leaders become much more receptive to taking out the time and effort required to do so.

Companies that invest in their onboarding journey will reap the rewards in terms of enhanced productivity and talent retention. Managers cannot afford to overlook these benefits, especially at a time when more and more employees are on the lookout for greener pastures. The end goal of strategic onboarding is to create an environment that allows new team members to feel at home, get to work and flourish for years to come.


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