Onboarding new employees the right way is one of those things I wished I paid more attention to in the early days of my career. Many of the issues you experience in your organization related to employee retention, disengagement, and lack of productivity, are somehow originated in how well you onboarded your people into your organization. If you think this is a strong statement, follow me with this. It took me years to realize that once you build a well-structured onboarding process everything changes and your company performs and moves so much faster.

I am not talking about tools or processes, I will focus on what you should include in your onboarding process and how you can connect the definition of a career path with the onboarding phase. Most importantly: this is true for every role and every level, from sales to marketing to product or operations. Let aside that details for a second and focus on the concept of introducing a new person into your organization and how that accelerates things.

The most important learning I bring with me about onboarding is that it’s the best (and truly the less expensive way) to retain your people and build a high-performing culture inside your team or organization. Most importantly, you don’t have to be CEO or a VP in a large organization to follow these suggestions, you can start applying 100% of them even if you run a small team of people. Try to do some of this the next time you onboard someone new and you will see. It’s one of the easiest things you can do to keep your people inspired and motivated, and we talked about how important that is.

If your organization is growing quickly, onboarding is the most important thing you can spend time and resources on. Because if you don’t you will lose your people and growth will slow down, almost always. I’ve experienced it at Cloud Academy at least twice, in 2017 when we went on a big hiring spree with our content and engineering org (followed by layoffs just 12 months later) and later on in 2020-2021 where things went better but we could have still managed onboarding slightly better, mostly in Sales and Marketing.

Emily does a great job with this keynote explaining what onboarding is truly about. It’s full of videos that tells you exactly what to in the onboarding process, she nailed what that is about and why it matters. Great video, watch it if you want to understand more about this topic. 

What is onboarding about and why it matters

Onboarding is mostly about welcoming a new person into your organization and make sure she feels at home as soon as possible. When she feels home she also starts being herself and knowing what to do and how. Onboarding in my opinion is a strong way to let your new people understand a lot of things in a very small amount of time: the better you explain those things, the better they will perform in your organization. This means that the type of content you should include in the onboarding process is about you as a company, more than their job role: you have already spent a ton of time interviewing and selecting these people, you know their skills, so now it’s just about enabling them to hit the ground running as soon as possible.

Employees are usually looking at the onboarding process exactly as a way to get to know the organization. Great people are curious, so they will want to learn a lot about your company and, most importantly, they will use that to quickly get into their role.

I’ve seen onboarding being a completely game changer when we invested time and resources at Cloud Academy to have a structured process, and at the same time, I’ve noticed how people that we were not properly onboarded (especially when we started managing people in more countries with a full remote approach) were slower to pick up things in their role and sometimes, even after months, they had a poor understanding of some aspects of our business – they had a pretty good idea of what we did, but they were struggling to connect the dots between our product and content or they simply did not have enough knowledge about our customers. Departments were the leadership was spending time to onboard their people were also performing better. Sales is a classic example of a department where I’ve seen people fail because of a lack of onboarding: in the early days, when we did not have a lot of resources but we were growing quickly, we somehow ignored a good onboarding process and most of our people ended up not becoming great sales performers. They did not fully understand our product and our vision and they way of presenting our solution was limited, giving them little traction in the market – we ended up replacing some people and a few others left. A terrible outcome if you think about the amount of money wasted. Later on we invested on proper onboarding for sales people and the difference was amazing, starting with sales results.

What you should explain to your people

As I said, don’t confuse onboarding new employees with giving them technical information about their role and tasks you have for them. That part needs to be there but it’s not exactly the most important one and it usually depends on how well your people know the following aspects of your company.

Company culture

I used to run a monthly (and later bimonthly) presentation at Cloud Academy called “Vision and history session for new employees”. It was a 40-minute long session with 10-15 new employees were I was presenting a few slides focused on our company, with a strong focus on describing our culture and our way of looking at the world. My main goal was telling our people what our company was about, what kind of people they would have found there and what kind of principles we had. I was telling them we liked product a lot and we valued being informal with everyone, for instance. But I was also explaining things like our cultural differences between the US and EU offices and how we ended up making all of that a big strength for our organization.

I knew people were getting value out of that meeting because I always had tons of questions from our people. They wanted to learn more and they were visibly excited about feeling part of our culture.

You history and how the company got there

You join a company and there are offices there, products, teams, processes. People refer to things and projects that have been in the making for years. It might look like things have always been there but the reality is that every company starts for a reason and usually the early days are very different from what your current employees are experiencing. That’s why it’s important to spend time telling people where you started and how: a bit of context about the founders and why they wanted to build that company is crucial. In my presentation I was always using a timeline to show the critical steps we reached at the company year over year and I was adding context and anecdotes.

This is something easy to do if you are a founder or an early employee of course. If you are not, you can still prepare slides and tell your people more about the company and how it got started. I am assuming that as a manager you went through a similar onboarding.

Your values and how people do things in your company

Values are about telling your people how people do things inside your company. I know that companies love to come up with long and sometimes cheesy list of values, the reality though is that people want to understand how your organization works and what matters in your culture. If helping your customers succeed is a real value inside the org, you will pretty much see that across every department and everyone will go to the extra mile to help out a customer, no matter their role. The same is valid for communication: if everyone feels very comfortable being direct and giving feedback to leadership, that’s what your new people will want to know sooner than later.

I think values sometimes are described as something too complex and abstract when in reality, as a manager or leader, you should really focus on describing to your people what is important in your culture and what they should feel comfortable doing or not doing.

Customers: who they are, why they buy and how you interact with them

This is something I wish we have spent more time on: explaining to your people who are your customers and why they are your customers. This is critical because the customers you work with really shape how your company operates. Your new people should know everything about your customers and why they picked you among all the other competitors. Explain their use cases, their problems and how they interact with your company (for example: if you host them at your offices or you organize regular events for them). Especially in very unique industries this allows your people to grasp immediately how your company operates and they learn a lot more about your product as well because they hear how that solves problems for customers.

Your managers need to run the onboarding process

Every team manager should be responsible for onboarding their people. If a team is too small, the most logical thing is to let the VP of that department running the onboarding process, but the point here is that your leadership should really spend time and resources to onboard their people. In many organizations the HR team is somehow involved in the onboarding process but that shouldn’t be an excuse to not have your managers running it.

Your people will love the fact that their manager is the one running the onboarding as well.

How to know if your onboarding is going well

This is bad but you will see the effects of a great or bad onboarding months later when people leave the organization or when they clearly fail in their role. It doesn’t mean that the onboarding is the only reason for those, but I’ve seen many cases where people leaving were also the people that did not get a real onboarding.

Another thing I would suggest doing is asking those people if the onboarding was well structured and helpful. This is usually asked in the exit interview and it will tell you a lot about your program.

How long should onboarding last?

It depends on several things considering that as part of the onboarding you will teach your people also technical aspects of their jobs. I think something between one and two months is a great choice: it doesn’t mean that your people will only spend time doing the onboarding, but it gives you enough time to really walk them through all the important things from a cultural and practical perspective.

Your people should know how long onboarding takes. Tell them exactly it will run for 2 months and give them a specific plan/program that has the major topics covered.

Onboarding remote employees: you need to do even more

If you are a manager you know managing remote employees is 10x more difficult than meeting people in the same office every week. Without getting into the specifics of remote employees management, I have seen onboarding being crucial for remote employees as well but I also noticed how you can’t really follow the same process here.

A few things you should consider while onboarding someone that is fully remote in your organization:

  • Fly them in for the first few weeks: we used to do this for many roles and it pays off. People will absorb things much faster and you can tell that most people will love it. As you fly them into your main HQ make sure you have an agenda and that they know exactly what to expect.
  • Check-in with them regularly in the first few months: the manager should do this more than anybody else, but a good practice is also having your HR team check-in with them.
  • Assign them to a coach/mentor inside your org – at least for the first few months: it always works. You can assign them to someone in your department or ask someone else to follow them, help them navigate processes and understand how your organization operates. This is probably the fastest way to get people up to speed, it comes with a cost (the person assigned will definitely need to spend time with them on a weekly basis) but it works very well.

Define a career path in the onboarding process

The career path is something we talked a lot about here of course. Ideally the onboarding process is also when you take a deeper look at the career path with your new people. Keep in mind that a great onboarding motivates them more than anything else, and defining their career path will add to that because it’s a great way for people to see everything in the context of what they are committing to in your organization. It’s always a good reminder to ask for your career path anyway, especially to your manager, even if you just started!

I will definitely come back to the onboarding process and how to structure it inside your company, thanks for reading and happy to read your comments and thoughts on it!

Stefano

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