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Onboarding Best Practices: Setting Up New Employees & Leaders for Success

March 18, 2019

This post is contributed by Tim Ressmeyer | Founding Partner of Ressmeyer Partners and Executive Leadership Coach | 20 years’ experience as an executive in analytics and marketing research roles

Too often onboarding of new employees - including new senior leaders - consists of two weeks of awkward meet and greets, delivery of huge amounts of information from the proverbial fire hose, and thumb-twiddling while waiting for the IT guy to finish setting up your computer. If you’re lucky, you might be thrown into confusing project or client meetings.Successful onboarding is a cultural and financial opportunity for a company to hit a home run, or to create a costly blunder. Overall, according to SHRM, the national employee turnover rate is about 18%. And, a great deal of this voluntary turnover happens within the first six months. Helping employees get through those early months successfully leads to greater longevity with the company, and there is, of course, the obvious cost savings.

Starting a new role presents challenges for both company and employee

There is a high personal and professional risk for both the Company and the Employee at this moment in time.For the employee, this is a time of anticipation and anxiety. There is rarely complete clarity and there is inevitable confusion. There are high hopes and the fear of failure. This was a big move, and I’m not really sure what I’ve gotten myself into.For the company leadership, there is the sigh of relief that the talent search is finally over. There is an excitement for what this new leader can offer and all the problems they can solve. They are expected be the hero to help get us to the next level, or to prove how right it was that the “last guy” is out of here. And, at the same time, there is the fear of, "what if we made the wrong choice." Often there is not unanimous consent about the new leader, or there are a few “red flags” we “have to watch out for.”

For both the leadership team and the new leader, onboarding is too often a missed opportunity. Too much is left to chance, the fragmented process is spread across too many parts of the organization, and there is not enough focus on the individual in question. Too much emphasis is on company structure and systems, and not enough on strengths and success.

Regarding onboarding as a two-way street helps increase the likelihood of employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity, resulting in more success for both the individual and the organization. It can’t just be a checklist, it has to be thoughtfully considered from individual, structural, and cultural perspectives.

Create an onboarding strategy beyond just training and paperwork

Organizations will use checklists to make sure everything from signing the HR paperwork, to ID badges, to scheduling training sessions are in all in place. Great! But if that’s where it stops, there’s bound to be trouble. Some critical parts of the employee experience can be overlooked or glossed over if the company is solely focused on just checking the boxes.I recently saw a 7-page checklist for onboarding that was extremely thorough. The section called “Introduce Company Culture” caught my eye. There were seven boxes to check under this heading including “coordinate a welcome lunch,” and “explain dress code.” Another in this group was “compile company information including values, mission, neighborhood or area map, contact information, etc.”

If the values and mission of a company are clear and honored by the organization, only “compiling” them for a new employee and handed off in a file that includes a map of lunch spots in the area is going to result in a missed opportunity to create that productive employee who wants to stick around.

Let’s take a look at some of the additional steps that leadership can take to set new employees and leaders up for success.

6 Critical Steps for Onboarding New Employees and Leaders

Onboarding should not solely be left up to HR. There are six steps senior leaders can take in shaping the onboarding of new employees, and most of it is leveraging and improving your leadership skills.

1. Clearly and confidently articulate the vision and mission of your organization

Be able to articulate the purpose of your company and have it make sense, whether you’re speaking to another senior leader or the most junior new hire. When employees are more aware of how they contribute to the success of the company, they’ll be more engaged. When you are communicating to your team, or the new employee, be conscious of taking the time to make sure they are aware of how they fit in, and that everyone else on the team can do likewise.

2. Intentionally create a culture that aligns with everyone’s values

Culture is key. Having plaques that say one thing (e.g. employees are our number one asset), but behaviors that show something different leads to morale issues and a workforce that feels deceived. This culture should align with your own values, the values of the company, and the values of each and every employee.Being able to manage through the highs and lows while setting an example for others is key to leadership. Make sure these cultural behaviors cascade throughout the organization and the new hire sees it, feels it, and is expected to own and exhibit it. Whether creating an atmosphere where ideas are easily shared, or where there is support to constantly improve, culture is a rallying point for success.

A culture will happen. Make it an intentional culture about which everyone is clear.
3. Manage change effectively with your current team

Any time a new employee comes on board, there is change. People respond differently to change. Being able to articulate clearly to others why this person is on board helps all parties manage through the change. Listening and answering questions without being defensive or feeling threatened creates an important dynamic that helps enhance trust and allows all members of the team to move ahead.

Being dialed in to your own emotional intelligence to understand and manage how others might feel or be impacted by this new hire will help make the change more successful for the team and the new individual.
4. Actively work to integrate diverse personality types in your team

Teams will always have a range of personality types, and the diversity of skills and experience help to keep a team innovative and always striving for excellence. For a leader, however, managing a team of strong and different personalities can be a leadership challenge, and it is even more critical when integrating a new person into the group.A team will likely have one or more “rockstars” – those who are consistently hitting their goals and seem to always do a great job. Reinforcing their success is important, but it’s also important to avoid playing “favorites” and to initiate the hard conversations when perhaps they are not fully aligned with the team or company culture. As you bring in new rockstars, or introduce current ones to your new employee, focus on how these team members can be continue to be personally successful while at the same time contributing to the growth of the team and serving as a role model to other team members.Mavericks are those team members who are full of great ideas that push the boundaries and aren’t afraid to move into non-traditional areas, or behave somewhat differently from the rest. Leaders who are able to celebrate that spirit while also helping the maverick understand and stick with certain norms helps to create an atmosphere of mutual success through innovation while being aligned to the values and mission.You may be bringing a maverick aboard, and you should embrace the excitement. But, be hyper conscious of how best to utilize their talents to achieve individual and team goals while contributing positively to your team culture.

5. Create a trust-based relationship with your new hire

Perhaps most importantly for the leader who is bringing someone new onto their team is the willingness and ability to create a trusting relationship with the new hire. More than just having regular 1:1 meetings or reviews, the leader will want to create an atmosphere from Day 1 (or from the first interview!) where the new employee and manager are able to discuss all the relevant aspects of their working relationship.

This includes discussion of: roles and responsibilities, goals, what success in this role looks like, how frequently and by what means you will communicate, how you have the difficult conversations, how you celebrate the wins and address things that didn’t work out well, and how you make sure your work is aligned to make you as individuals – and as a team – successful.
6. Navigate the highs and lows of the onboarding process

Both your head and heart are going to be involved in the onboarding of the new employee. Buyer’s remorse may set in. That person you hired may not be working out as you thought they would. Maybe there are areas you thought they could handle and now you’re seeing otherwise. There may be pushback from other parties and you question your decision-making.It’s totally normal to wonder whether it was a good choice or not. If your due diligence in the hiring process was thorough, you are probably alright. Review the items above and make sure you are creating a culture of trust and transparency to evaluate the fit. If you’re feeling something isn’t right, your new hire probably is as well. Talk openly to be sure you can air out real or imagined problems. Understand the cycle of highs and lows for both the employee and the organization when onboarding. Some time it feels like a match made in heaven, sometimes it feels like it is all wrong.

At times it can be clear early on that the fit just isn’t there. Make sure the decision to end the relationship is being made from a position of respect and clarity and not out of an emotional reaction to a decision you wish you hadn’t made.

Focus on improving your leadership skills for onboarding success

The stakes are high when onboarding top talent in your organization. With low unemployment, it’s harder to attract talent, and it’s essential to keep them – and have them be as productive as possible – once they come on board.Enhancing your own leadership skills, and those of managers, when focusing on the critical job of onboarding, will help to ensure a greater likelihood of them having success in their new role. It’s an opportunity for the current leaders to look at themselves and be conscious of how aligned they are with their organizations values and how effective they are at bringing new people onto the team.

Want to learn more?

Watch my Onboarding Best Practices: Setting Up New Employees & Leaders for Success video below, where I share more about onboarding new employees and leaders, managing your team through personnel transitions, and key goals for bringing new team members on board.