Onboarding is the process that organizations use to get their employees up to speed enough to do their jobs. Another term for it is “organizational socialization.” Organizations have informal and formal methods for the knowledge transfer or processes, tools, methods, culture and introductions that is sufficient for the employee to be effective in his/her new job. I’ve seen really good onboarding and really horrible onboarding.
The best onboarding I ever experienced personally was as a consultant when I was going to work for a group of consultants. The onboarding was a combination of providing me with detailed “playbooks” of how the organization did its work and of having me spend intense time with each team of consultants to see/understand how they put the playbook into action. I traveled weekly for my onboarding and in three weeks’ time, I felt that I understood the whole and was fully able to go do it myself. It was the combination of the intensity, the excellent documentation, and the seeing it all in action—including being given tasks I didn’t know how to do, but being surrounded by people who could/would help me.
I’ve had so many “worst” onboardings that it is hard to pick just one. They range from putting me in a room with a year’s worth of reading and leaving me to read for two weeks to putting me at a desk and spending less than 10 minutes telling me what to do and walking away, never to return. I think that I eventually did OK, even at the jobs with these onboardings, but the time it took to get me up to speed and to be productive was vastly different.
I finally decided that I needed to take responsibility for my own onboarding. As a consultant, it is critical that I hit the ground running and know enough in a week to make a difference. If I wait for people (who all have other jobs and many of whom are not sure they want me here, anyway) to tell me what/how/when/why in the organization, then I will fail. These processes can apply for anyone, in any job, including people who have been in the job for a long time.
Steps to Your Own Onboarding:
- Make a Plan: Identify what you want to accomplish and how fast. You have a fairly short period of time before people get over you being new and expect you to “do” something. They are very open to questions in the early days; they think you’re dumb if you’re still asking questions later (even then, you need to ask questions to learn—deal with what they think). Who do you need to know? What do you need to know? What do you need to be able to do? Ask people what they think you need to do to be successful. Then put in place a plan that gets you there. Fast.
- Meet People: Meet people at every level. Set up meetings. Invite people to lunch or breakfast. Accept all invitations. Learn the power structures. Learn the informal networks. Learn the ‘go to’ people. Learn the whiners. Learn who to listen to and who to avoid. The only way to do that is to throw yourself into meeting people. (Even introverts need to do this) Ask people to help you. Ask people who you should meet. Ask people who helped them when they started. Target someone to be a mentor in this process and ask for his/her help.
- Figure Out the Tools: Luckily, today most organizations use the same fundamental tools—the Microsoft Office suite plus SharePoint. If the organization uses different/other tools, however, learn these as soon as possible. Learn Oracle, Salesforce.com, EPDM, or whatever other tool your organization uses. You need to understand it and be conversant in its strengths and weaknesses. (Every tool you learn makes you more marketable—use the opportunity of being new to dive in and learn new tools).
- Understand the Culture: Every organization has its own culture. This is like the water the fish swim in—the people inside the organization are not very aware of it consciously, but it shapes all behavior unconsciously. When you’re new is the only time you can actually “see” the culture. Don’t make the mistake of assuming it is like the culture you just came from. Just because engineers are the dominant players in the new culture as they were in the old, there will be huge differences. Learn these differences with “new eyes.” Learn what the organization thinks about what makes success, who are the people who seem to “get it.” What are they like? How much does the leader shape the organization? Is the founder still there? How long since the founder was there? What are the left over influences from that? (These are frequently the things that don’t seem to make sense because they started a long time ago but are still there). Write down your observations of the culture. Make a mind map. How does the culture influence the way that you will get your work done? How can you use the culture to be more effective?
- Learn the Product/Customers/Processes: Become an expert. Take all the classes you can. (Organizations frequently have classes for new sales people that are available to others). Ask people about the processes. Become best friends with the Intranet. What’s there and what can you learn from what’s there? What do others outside the organization say? What do people in the organization say in reaction? Everyone in every part of the organization needs to thoroughly understand the Product and the Customers. You need to at least understand the processes in your own organization and those that take product to market and get money to the bank. Like I said, BECOME AN EXPERT.
- Take Actions: You have a very short window before people start to see action. Look for opportunities to take early action. It is better to be right about these actions, so be careful—but not too careful. Action is better than no action, even if you make mistakes. Ask your boss and peers what kinds of actions they are expecting from you and deliver them as soon as possible.
Good Books That Help With This:
The First 90 Days, Critical Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels byMichael Watkins
The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan by George Bradt, Jamye Check, and Jorge Pedrassa