I Have Some Onboarding Advice That’s Really Mundane … and Profound

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Oct 21, 2015

Ask yourself: What happens when your new young employees walk through the door on Day 1? How do you leverage those first days and weeks?

You won’t be surprised that my platinum standard for onboarding and up‐to‐speed training is the Marine’s Boot Camp. For 13 solid weeks, they provide an all‐encompassing 24/7 experience in which they take an ordinary human being and transform that person into a Marine — a person with a unique set of self‐management skills, problem-solving skills, and people skills — a person so connected to the Marine Corps and its mission and every other Marine that this person is now ready to walk into the line of fire, literally, and win battles.

You don’t need obstacle courses and firing ranges. You don’t need to make your newly hired employees do pushups in the sand in the middle of the night. But take the lesson: What message are you sending about standards and expectations for high-priority behaviors from Day 1?

First, make sure you know exactly what happens with your new hires in the formal orientation, onboarding, and up‐to‐speed training. Most employers have only a minimal process for welcoming new employees and getting them onboard and up to speed.

Some employers are better at this than others. Typically, employers provide a basic introduction to the mission and history of the organization (or not), they give the basic facts and figures (or not), have new employees meet some of the key players (or not), receive a primer in the policies and paperwork (or not), and maybe some of the rules and traditions (or not).

Second, consider the inevitable handoff to the hiring manager (maybe that is you), once the official orientation program is complete. That’s where so much of the real onboarding action is going to happen, and that’s exactly where the ball is so often dropped. Don’t drop that ball.

If you want to send the message that those behaviors are truly a high priority, then you have to pay more than lip service. How much of your onboarding and up-to-speed training is dedicated to spelling out performance standards and expectations for those high priority soft skill behaviors? How much time is dedicated to championing those behaviors and teaching them?

Here’s a pretty simple rule: It should be about half.

As one savvy leader in a very successful retail chain put it to me:

“For every hour we spend teaching a cashier how to operate the register, we spend at least an hour teaching her customer service skills — how to interact with customers and how to solve their problems.”

Of course, it doesn’t have to be half and half. Maybe the best approach is to have a dynamic integrated approach to onboarding and up‐to‐speed training that is designed in every way to send a powerful message about high standards and expectations for employees’ attitudes and behavior in relation to work.

One of my favorite companies is a rental car company that prides itself on hiring only college graduates for every position, no matter how entry level. It also prides itself on an onboarding process that not only teaches every new hire the business, but also makes it 1,000 percent clear to new hires exactly what kind of workplace citizenship is expected of every single employee.

On top of hours upon hours of training, with computer based tools and hands-on coaches, new hires can expect to find themselves out in the parking lot washing cars. Everybody — from the top to the bottom — in this organization is expected to wash cars. Nobody is too important to wash cars. In between washing cars, new hires are expected to study. And study they do, because each week they must demonstrate proficiency in a range of subjects, including the company’s computer system, details about the company’s fleet, insurance, reservations, sales, marketing, customer service, billing, administration, decision making with everyday situations, corporate philosophy, and on and on.

The training materials spell out everything new hires must learn from week to week. And they study every night because — from Day 1  — they are expected to be working, helping out in any way they can, during the day. There are also weekly coaching sessions with a fellow employee; each new hire is assigned a coach. There are tests at the 30‐day mark, at 60 days, and at 90 days. This incredibly impressive program, which the company runs on the job in thousands of rental car shops all over the world, teaches new hires not just how to run the business, but also inculcates a powerful sense of the kind of work ethic and commitment the company requires. The results can be seen in every corner of this world-class organization. The onboarding program is not exactly the Marine Corps Boot Camp, but it is truly profound in its impact.

Of course, onboarding and up-to-speed training needn’t be profound. Let me give you a more mundane example.

In one large company that hires a lot of new young engineers, managers and more experienced engineers were increasingly frustrated with some of the work habits of many of their new young engineers, including their email communication habits. A senior director of engineering in this company told me: “When it came to email, they did a bunch of things that drove everybody crazy: They would do every email ‘no no’: red flag emails indiscriminately, cc too many people on emails, or reply all to the wrong things, fail to change subject lines. But in particular they would send lots of very short email messages from their hand-held devices instead of composing a proper email. We developed a list of dos and don’ts for email communication and we built in a 30-minute module in orientation.” How did that work? “Problem solved.”

I have a very similar story from a top accounting firm. Managers in this firm had noticed a growing pattern of “poor meeting manners” among new young staff accountants. What are “poor meeting manners”? According to one senior partner: “Poor attendance, late arrival, constantly looking at their devices, lack of preparation, interrupting, going way off topic, making inappropriate comments …. I could go on.”

The solution was very similar: The firm began explicitly teaching new hires how to prepare for and conduct themselves in meetings. It was so successful that the firm leadership decided to overhaul everybody’s “meeting manners.” As it turned out, it wasn’t just the new associates whose meeting manners were not so great. After they developed the “meeting manners” program, the leadership realized that everybody in the firm could benefit from learning and observing these best practices for meetings.

As a result, said the senior partner, “We had a real change in our culture around meetings. People in this firm became religious about following the rules of conduct. Our meetings got much better, and they remain so. It’s a centerpiece of our culture now.”

Gee, maybe that’s mundane and profound at the same time.


Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Bridging the Soft Skills Gap: How to Teach the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent by Bruce Tulgan. Copyright by Bruce Tulgan. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

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