According to the American Society for Training & Development, US companies spend over $164 billion on employee learning and development each year. As all-encompassing as that figure appears, most companies overlook the most basic of all training functions: the onboarding of new employees into their corporate culture. As a serial turnaround CEO and startup entrepreneur, I know all too well the challenges of onboarding new talent. At every new company I join, even as the boss, I still feel like the transfer student in the middle of a school year on his first day of class. I have helmed every size business from large multi-national corporations down to one-room startups and it makes no difference if your organization has a dozen employees or tens of thousands, the following five simple steps will speed the newbie’s productivity, reduce employee churn and create an environment where people feel valued.
Onboarding starts with satisfying the most basic of Maslow’s psychological needs: belonging. New hires shouldn’t arrive to an empty cube and be forced to forage through corridors searching for a computer and the bare necessities of office life. A new hire isn’t a surprise visitor from out of town. Plan for their arrival. Their computer, email, and phone lines should all be functioning and waiting for them. They are excited about joining the company and it is up to the company to show that you are just as excited that they came. Imagine how welcomed they’d feel have a freshly printed box of business cards waiting for them at their desk that they can share with friends and family. The little things matter because they set the tone for how the employee feels about your company, your people, and your commitment to their future. De-stressing that first day goes a long way towards satisfying the new-hire’s self-esteem and reinforcing their decision to join.
The second step is helping the new recruit make friends. Again, as basic as this may sound, studies have shown the number one reason for job satisfaction isn’t pay, but having friends at the workplace. In fact, enjoying being with one’s coworkers is given three times more often than the next most-cited reason for loving a job. Fostering those friendships is the employer’s responsibility. Finding and recruiting new talent is expensive and yet, as managers we spend too little time thinking about how to retain new hires. My personal favorite activity is a speed-dating lunch where everyone gets to spend a few minutes meeting the new team member. As the new CEO, I do this activity in reverse and select random groupings of employees with whom to lunch. Another approach is to assign an internal mentor. By giving another employee the responsibility to share in the onboarding, it also gives the more senior members of the group a feeling of ownership in the success.
The last step to onboarding I call matching the new car smell. All too often, new hires have a different expectation of their job and responsibilities than the organization. Any miscommunication during the recruiting process needs to be cleared up ASAP. Whenever possible give new employees a written plan of objectives and responsibilities. The more detailed the documentation, the less confusion about expectations and organizational dynamics. Everyone wants to feel the autonomy to do their job as they see fit, but everyone works best if they know what boundaries have been established. Every company has its silos and internal politics. As “unwritten” as these rules may be, guiding new teammates across these minefields will prevent disasters and accelerate productivity.
My last two pieces of advice are my tried and true Samit axioms for startups. As a CEO, I tell every single employee that I work for them (and not the other way around). I mean this sincerely. My job is to hire the best and brightest employees and empower them to do their best work. As a manager, I am not a mind-reader, nor an expert at every job function. Therefore, it is incumbent on every hire to feel empowered to tell me what resources they need to do their job. My job is to get them what they need and get out of their way. The more freedom you give coworkers to identify organizational deficiencies, the quicker you can build a world-class company. My last instruction to every new direct report is the importance of making mistakes. Ask anyone that has ever worked for me and they will repeat my instructions verbatim “If you work for me for a year and don’t make a mistake I will fire you.” I believe this statement is the hallmark of my success. Running a startup and growing a business is about taking risks. If employees are afraid to try new ideas and experiment, a business will stagnate and fail. Letting your team know that you support them in failure builds a culture of trust and camaraderie.
There is one hidden benefit from involving the entire organization in onboarding of new talent that too many companies often overlook. Each new hire brings with them to your company a fresh set of eyes and new assumptions about how things should be done. Onboarding is an excellent opportunity for a company to reset its processes and not just clone them. Each new team member brings institutional knowledge from other companies with varying cultures. Incorporate the best new ideas into your evolving company culture. Encourage your team to learn, assimilate what is working elsewhere, and there are no limitations on your company’s ability to grow.
This post first appeared in the Wall Street Journal December 29, 2014