It’s an employee’s market, especially in tech.
Unemployment in the United States is at 4.1% and even lower in areas like professional and business services, financial activities, healthcare, and of course, technology.
The effect is that retention numbers in tech are at critically low levels, including an average tenure of one to two years at some of the most respected tech companies.
In other words, onboarding has never been more important.
A study found that approximately 17% of employees who are hired leave in their first three months at a new job, while nearly 30% leave in their first six months.
The onboarding myths
Problems with onboarding are not new. Yet, they persist today for reasons ranging from limited time and resources to the misconception that a Darwinian, “sink or swim” system will naturally select for winners over losers.
But let’s be clear: onboarding is necessary to save time and resources. Hiring is time-consuming and expensive, as is introducing a flurry of new people into your organization. An upfront investment in your new hires extends their average tenure and ultimately their productivity.
"The most common reasons for early departure all tie back to either insufficient or poor onboarding."
Employees who left cited clearer guidelines around responsibilities, more effective training, and various forms of social recognition from peers and leadership as factors that would have convinced them to stay.
A “sink or swim” approach doesn’t work in a system without context. Talented people will often fail without the resources to learn in an organization, and untalented people will often adopt a parasitic strategy within your organization, which can be very successful in Darwinian systems.
Think about it this way: the apprenticeship system in Renaissance Florence produced a slew of the greatest artists of all time. Most of these artists started off as ordinary boys with no discernible talent.
However, apprenticeship allowed these boys to become masters through training in a progressive series of steps. They went from grinding colors all the way to inventing their own work.
Onboarding is a necessary part of transforming a new hire into your company’s next Michelangelo.
Building an easy-to-execute and rock-solid onboarding system
Establishing a predefined, repeatable process for onboarding will reduce the amount of time you spend ramping up new hires and increase overall retention.
During the first 90 days, your employees should progress from learning to doing; they should receive all necessary introductions, training, and education during this timeframe.
I built an easy-to-execute and proven model that I’ve used on my own hires and implemented with tech companies that breaks down into four simple phases:
- 0 Days: Defining Purpose
- 30 Days: Learn
- 60 Days: Build
- 90 Days: Do
Each new phase overlaps with and builds off the others. While an employee focuses on learning in the first 30 days, learning does not stop at the 60-day or 90-day marks. However, where that employee expends energy shifts. At 60 days, the employee is still learning, but spending more energy on building.
I advocate for a true 90-day onboarding period because putting a container around activity helps new hires ease into a role, mentally prepare for their responsibilities, and develop the understanding and skills necessary to succeed.
90 days also makes a new work environment more manageable.
" Remember, for new people joining teams, they don’t just have one full-time job, but two: doing the job and adjusting to the culture and conditions of the job"
I’ll define each phase and give examples of what an employee should be doing in each one, but first, a word to the wise:
Don’t burn your people out on day one.
0 Days: Defining Purpose
One of the most important phases in onboarding is often the most neglected: defining the new hire’s purpose in the organization. This goes beyond a job description, and starts with expectation-setting.
In The Employee Experience, researchers Tracey Maylett and Matthew Wride uncovered a game-changing discovery about employee satisfaction.
"Engagement, satisfaction, and happiness often depend less on the conditions in which one works and more on whether expectations are aligned and met."
In other words, it doesn’t matter if a company is hard-driving, unforgiving, and demanding or friendly, collaborative, and family-focused. What matters is whether expectations are set around these factors when people start.
Think about it this way. Employee satisfaction at Amazon is high, despite media coverage depicting conditions as punishing. Why?
Employees know what they’re getting into before they ever set foot in their new open-plan offices.
Exceptional onboarding starts before an employee’s first day, and in fact, usually starts during candidate interviews. Whoever you hire should have at least a general idea of:
- What am I here to do?
- What do I have at my disposal to do it?
- What do I need to know to succeed?
- Who are my key stakeholders?
- How am I being measured?
- What behaviours are rewarded in this culture?
- What behaviours are looked down upon in this culture?
Granted, the answers to the first five questions may change. Still, when you design the new role (which happens before you ever talk to candidates), you should have the answers to these questions in mind. You should also be transparent about what could change and why, which will appropriately set expectations around the overall environment.
To truly define a new hire’s purpose, work on developing four key guiding frames.
Not to be confused with the company’s vision statement, this is a short paragraph defining the vision for the role. This paragraph should clearly state the overarching problem the person is being hired to solve or objective they’re expected to meet by clearly spelling out what they are there to do, how they will do it, and why it matters.
What sets this statement apart from an overview in a job description is that it factors in the person you hired and the unique skills they bring to the table.
For example, while a job description might call for a Creative Director who elevates the company brand through exceptional storytelling, the vision statement for a new hire who specializes in design may specify exceptional visual storytelling.
Roles and Responsibilities Overview Document
This document builds off the vision statement to clearly define the new hire’s role and how that role will be met.
The role consists of the three to five problems they will solve, while the responsibilities define how they will solve them.
In our Creative Director example, one of the bullet points under “Role” may be “Elevating the brand through exceptional visual storytelling,” which could solve the problem of insufficient brand awareness in the market. Under “Responsibilities,” however, the bullet point might say, “Architect Instagram strategy with an emphasis on original visual content.”
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
KPIs are the metrics by which employees — and businesses — are measured. In other words, what numbers does your new hire need to hit quarterly, annually, and overall?
You can develop these in more depth with the new hire during the onboarding process, but you absolutely must know how that person is going to be measured and communicate that in advance. Remember Peter Drucker’s famous adage, “what gets measured, gets managed.”
Milestones are more qualitative. These are objectives an employee must meet to justify their role and create value for the company, but can’t necessarily be measured with a number. For example, a milestone might be building a strategic plan for communications, while a KPI could be building a base of 100,000 Instagram followers.
Before your hires even begin work, they should know what overarching value they’re expected to drive in both quantitative and qualitative terms. However, you don’t need to be exceedingly granular in putting these frames together; there’s a time and place for that in the next steps.
30 Days: Learn
The first 30 days of onboarding are completely about learning.
It doesn’t matter to me how fast your company is growing, how many pieces you’re moving, or how many bodies you need. Employees need to learn to do the job to do it well.
With that said, learning doesn’t have to mean sending new hires to all-day lectures or training seminars.
The 70:20:10 leadership development model suggests learning comes from 70% challenging projects, 20% coaching and mentorship, and 10% structured learning.
In other words, in those first 30 days, your new hires can spend 70% of their time working on hard projects the company needs solved. However, to do so successfully they need the coaching and mentoring, along with the formal training.
To create the optimal conditions for learning, build preparation and acceleration into onboarding.
Preparation encompasses a huge amount of the onboarding process and sets the tone for the overall employee experience. This is where you provide all the tools, information, and connections needed for hires to truly acclimate.
Here’s a sample checklist for preparation you can use to keep yourself organized.
In the preparation phase, it’s critical to make sure that on day one, new employees know where they’re supposed to be, who they’re supposed to meet with, and what they’re supposed to do. Send all this information in a welcome email at least 24 hours before their first day.
When they come into the office, keep a checklist with you to make sure you’re getting them what they need, from an assigned workspace to a warm welcome from their peers and colleagues.
One On Ones
Set up small, one-on-one meetings throughout the first month to welcome your hires into the organization, provide an overview of culture (what behaviors are celebrated, tolerated, and forbidden), set expectations around roles and responsibilities in more detail than in the purpose-setting phase, and project assignments.
The clarity and context new employees gain from these one-on-ones means they will know what to do and can therefore start doing it sooner, and better. Moreover, as Susan Cain points out in Quiet:
Face-to-face contact is important because it builds trust, but group dynamics contain unavoidable impediments to creative thinking. Arrange for people to interact one-on-one and in small, casual groups.
More personal meeting settings create relationships without hampering the generation of new ideas. Chances are you brought new people in to foster innovation, so make sure you’re not putting them in situations where pressure to conform outweighs the freedom to contribute perspectives.
In the first 30 days, you want to accelerate learning as efficiently as possible. That often means combatting a bias towards action.
As Michael D. Watkins warns in The First 90 Days, don’t fall prey to action imperative. Defining the “what” and the “why” of the role is necessary to quickly surface the best “how.”
To accelerate learning in your hires, employ these targeted methods:
Arrange meetings with “believable” experts in areas new hires will touch, as well as some they won’t. These informational meetings will educate them on how people approach problems across departments and disciplines, allowing them to avoid the “blank page” problem.
Whether you go heavy or light on training, there is one session that is absolutely critical to accelerating learning. That’s a business strategy overview meeting where you train employees on the business itself, company architecture, strategic and/or business plan, and market conditions. This training should be interactive and prompt participants to ask questions and contribute new ideas to demonstrate understanding.
These encompass a broad set of categories, but generally comprise projects that involve job shadowing, collaboration with experienced employees, and most importantly, research.
Exposure to leadership and development books and industry- or function-specific reading will absolutely increase new employees’ knowledge base, while also adding structure to their learning. I create a new syllabus for every new hire I bring on, whether they’re a full-time Analyst or a part-time intern. I assign a book a week to my new hires, but you can determine whatever cadence you want.
Throughout this phase, whatever projects your new hires work on, determine their success by how well they’re learning, not how astonishing their results are. You want to privilege what Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, terms ‘deep practice.’
Deep practice is “struggling in certain targeted ways — operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes.” Have them take on hard projects and push themselves to find new solutions beyond what they’ve done in past roles. Reward their analysis and refinement of errors over the end product, and the end product will eventually be far superior to what you could have imagined.
60 Days: Build
Learning doesn’t stop after the first 30 days, but instead continues in tandem with the act of building.
In some ways, building is just an extension of learning, where you trust new employees to dig deeper into the responsibilities themselves and engage in more independent work.
This phase is where they begin to build social ties, frameworks, and a collection of early wins to propel them into successful execution once onboarding is complete.
In this 30-day block, they should focus on strategy, development, and implementation.
Once new hires get the information they need, they should engage formal compilation and review. Their notes from discovery meetings, readings, and research should become findings on which they start to base more nuanced assumptions, hypothesis, questions, and ideas about the business and the challenges they’ve been hired to tackle.
This generally looks like a market analysis presentation, marketing audit, or research review session with me. Employees take their sources, along with their own original thought, and present what they’ve learned in a 60 to 90-minute presentation, complete with a final section featuring core observations and recommendations for the future.
Based on this analysis, give them the direction — but also the space — to develop a strategy to convert what they’ve learned into value for the organization. This usually takes the form of a strategic plan in the core functional area they’ve been hired to tackle first.
"At this point, you should also encourage new employees to take what they’ve learned about the overall organization and develop a strategy for individual professional success, complete with goal-setting, skills-building requests, and more targeted asks for resources."
Usually a one-pager that you review and discuss with them monthly, this framework keeps employees focused on their own personal growth as a means of growing the business.
Now that a strategy is set, new employees take that strategy and use it to develop solutions to problems or opportunities for growth in real life. Take our Creative Director, for example.
As her strategy, she may architect a proposal for heightening brand awareness through visual storytelling complete with recommendations and steps to take, all based on her assorted findings. Then, she must develop ways to implement those recommendations.
She could create Instagram campaign mock-ups, work with copywriters on new platform language, explore other highly visual platforms, and compile a list of influencers who can tell these stories.
With such products developed, she must test their effects. This could involve seeking input from both internal stakeholders and those outside influencers on her campaign mockups, creating a small test campaign on Instagram to measure performance, and creating content on another visually-centered platform with a quantitative eye on initial engagement.
"‘Development’ refers not just to products or solutions, but to relationships as well. At this stage, new hires should know their peers well enough to collaborate and ask for help, leverage discovery meetings into real relationships that persist after onboarding, and clearly understand their most important stakeholders."
Depending on the role, this may mean spending more time outside of the internal company network. What matters is that they are integrated into a trusted group of people who all materially and genuinely impact their performance positively.
Implementation takes those tests from development and expands their reach. This is where employees begin to fire on all cylinders and execute against the responsibilities they were hired to fill.
Notably, they might not yet fulfill all their responsibilities. The goal is to go deep rather than wide during onboarding because the lessons learned about the way the organization functions will lay the foundation for all future work. It’s about getting it right, first.
That’s why implementation is all about securing early wins.
Let’s go back to our Creative Director example. A Creative Director’s role is much, much bigger than running Instagram campaigns. But in the beginning, implementing successful campaigns does achieve the objective of spreading brand awareness and elevating the company’s market position.
The same logic applies to any other quick wins in the first 60 days, which typically take the form of fast fixes, initial pilots, new programs, project ideas, and system updates. All are important, but they typically focus on one area or one problem that needs to be fixed.
Watching new hires implement their findings and strategies is also the best way to understand how they’re performing and gain alignment on what their role needs to be and how they can move forward.
Providing real-time feedback during implementation is necessary for onboarding, the best means of ensuring expectations are aligned, and just good management.
90 Days: Do
In the last 30-day block, new hires are empowered and expected to “do” more than anything else. They should be measured according to KPIs and milestones, and they should understand they will be judged on outcomes as much as thinking and process.
Still, with just two months under their belts, forgive mistakes. Better yet, forgive certain kinds of mistakes.
It’s fine if new employees make mistakes based on lack of historical information, shaky skills with new systems or processes, or even lack of expertise in an area.
It’s not fine if they don’t follow company rules, disrespect stakeholders, turn in sloppy or late work, or fail to communicate appropriately around deadlines or to key stakeholders.
Remember, this is the honeymoon period. Attitude and commitment should not be a problem. It’s the employees’ responsibility to inform you of any extenuating circumstances that might result in bad behavior. Even then, take bad behavior seriously.
With that said, “Do” should be the easiest and least complex block of the process. This is where employees focus on cultivating relationships and teams, graduating from quick wins to longer-term ones, engaging in more wide-ranging work, and undergoing a formal review to ensure they’re on track.
At this point, employees do more than ask for help, they in turn are helpful. They build true trust on teams, and depending on the role, even build their own teams to oversee and manage.
If the role involves external stakeholders such as partners or clients, this is when they begin managing them on their own.
At this point, early wins pay off and employees can begin to go wide and assume more types of responsibilities while working towards longer term goals.
Remember that successful series of Instagram campaigns? With clear validation, our Creative Director can now work on unrolling a full strategy around visual communications that touches a much broader swath of areas. Instead of just developing Instagram mock-ups, our Creative Director will begin setting the vision for an entirely transformed graphic identity company-wide.
While this may sound ambitious, remember the word “begin.” Usually, this unroll stage is the kick-off of bigger things to come.
Whether you do quarterly, annual, or even real-time performance evaluations, the last step in onboarding is always evaluation.
Create a scorecard if you don’t have one already and complete an assessment of performance over the last 90 days. Have the employee complete a self-assessment. Then, compare notes in a candid conversation around performance.
This is where you look at strengths and opportunities for improvement, and get feedback from the employee on the same.
It’s also where you recalibrate on KPIs and milestones going forward to make sure you are still aligned. If you are no longer aligned, reset expectations and explain why they’ve been reset.
I’ll leave you with one final mandate I’ve lifted from Ray Dalio’s Principles:
Build the organization around goals rather than tasks.
Every phase of this onboarding process is focused on goals that buoy and uplift your organization, and on how you can best position your people to achieve them. Refine it, tweak it, replace some of it, or use it exactly. Just remember: this is all in service of growth and goals.
Know what you’re working towards and why it matters, and know what your people are working towards and why that matters, too. Success will follow.