Dec 5 2013

Onboarding vs. Waterboarding

Onboarding vs. Waterboarding

One of our new senior hires just said to me the other day that he has been enjoying his Onboarding process during his first 90 days at Return Path and that at other companies he’s worked at in the past, the first few months were more like Waterboarding.

At Return Path, we place a lot of emphasis on onboarding – the way we ask employees to spend their first 90 days on the job.  I’ve often said that the hiring process doesn’t end on the employee’s first day.  I think about the employee’s first day as the mid-point of the hiring process. The things that come after the first day — orientation (where’s the bathroom?), context-setting (here’s our mission, here’s how your job furthers it), goal setting (what’s your 90-day plan?), and a formal check-in 90 days later — are all make-or-break in terms of integrating a new employee into the organization, making sure they’re a good hire, and making them as productive as possible.

Nothing has a greater impact on a hire’s long-term viability than a thorough Onboarding. Sure, you have to get the right people in the door. But if you don’t onboard them properly, they may never work out. This is where all companies, big and small, fail most consistently.  Remember your first day of work? Did you (or anyone at the company) know where you were supposed to sit? Did you (or anyone at the company) know if your computer was set up? Did you (or anyone at the company) have a project ready for you to start on? Did you (or anyone at the company) know when you’d be able to meet your manager? Probably not.

Take onboarding much more seriously, and you’ll be astounded by the results. We have a Manager of Onboarding whose only job is to manage the first 90 days of every employee’s experience. You don’t need to go that far (and won’t be able to until you’ve scaled well past 100 employees), but here are some things you can, and must, do to assure a successful onboarding process:

1. Start onboarding before Day 1. Just as recruitment doesn’t end until Day 90, onboarding starts before Day 1. At Return Path, we ask people to create a “Wall Bio” – a one-page collage of words and images that introduces them to the team – before their first day. It’s a quick introduction to our company culture, and something the rest of our team looks forward to seeing as new people join. Your project can be different, but it’s important to get new hires engaged even before their first day.

2. Set up your new hire’s desk in advance. There is nothing more dispiriting than spending your first day at new job chasing down keyboards and trying to figure out your phone extension. We go to the opposite extreme. When a new hire walks in the door at Return Path, their desk is done. Their computer, monitor and telephone are set up. There’s a nameplate on their office or cube. They’ve got a full set of company gear (T-shirt, tote, etc.). To show how excited we are, we even include a bottle of champagne and a handwritten note from me welcoming them to the company. In the early days of the business, we even had the champagne delivered to the employee’s home after they accepted the offer. (That didn’t scale well, particularly outside of New York City.)

3. Prepare an orientation deck for Day 1. There are certain things about your company that new hires will learn as they go along: nuances of culture, pacing, etc. But there are some things that should be made explicit right away. What is the company’s mission? What are its values? How is the organization structured? What is the current strategic plan? These details are common to every employee, and all new hires should hear them—preferably from the CEO. You can present these details one-on-one to your direct reports, or do larger in-office sessions to groups of new hires over breakfast or lunch.

4. Clearly set 90-day objectives and goals. Other details are going to be specific to an employee’s position. What’s their job description (again)? What are the first steps they should take? Resources they should know about? People they should meet? Training courses to enroll in? Materials to read and subscribe to? Finally, and most importantly, what are the major objectives for their first 90 days? They shouldn’t spend their first quarter “feeling around.” They should spend it actively and intentionally working toward a clear goal.

5. Run a review process at the end of 90 days. Whether you do a 360 review or a one-way performance review, the 90-day mark is a really good point to pull up and assess whether the new hire is working out and fitting culturally as well. It’s much easier to admit a mistake at this point and part ways while the recruiting process is still somewhat fresh than it is months down the road after you’ve invested more and more in the new hire.

With that, the hiring process is done. Now, repeat.

[Note:  this post contains some passages excerpted from my book, Startup CEO:  A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business, published by Wiley & Sons earlier this fall.]