June 20, 2022

Onboarding - Step 1 in building a high performing culture

In a prior post, I promised to follow up with a follow up deep-dive series on onboarding, leadership, healthy growth, and measures/reporting in service of an effective, high performing culture. This is a deep dive about onboarding, a key component of the scaffolding that creates an effective company culture. Here goes.

First things first. I’m not going to spend a ton of time on the administrative logistics of onboarding because that’s been done a lot and there’s plenty out there to read on this topic, but I will say you only get one chance to make a first impression. Prior to starting, every employee should receive a thoughtful welcome email. They should also receive an email that outlines what to expect. On Day 1, logistics should be clear: where to go, how to dial in, where to park, what to bring, etc… logistical surprises on the first day are very awkward and very avoidable. Put your user experience hat on and design an experience that is welcoming and “easy” for your newest team members. If you want more detail on designing logistics of onboarding, Atlassian has done a good job here.

At the end of the day, a company is nothing but the cumulative outcomes of its employees. Those outcomes are very malleable and a high performing culture leads to better outcomes. Onboarding is the earliest and perhaps most critical opportunity to intentionally invest in a high performing culture because it is when your culture is potentially most at risk. New employees bring their own values and beliefs, as well as those learned at previous companies. They are also highly engaged and the earliest days determine whether those employees stay engaged, or rapidly become disengaged. Finally, personal impact is a contributing factor to employee engagement and success, and can be accelerated through intentional onboarding. Think of effective onboarding as a tool for perpetuating a high performance culture this way.  

Accelerating cultural alignment

With growth, comes new employees with outside views and past company experience. On one hand, this is great - a fresh eye can be a positive attribute when it comes to solving challenges or scaling, but new employees need to possess an emphatic alignment and commitment to a company's values and beliefs. Hopefully, an effective hiring process focused on broad values alignment during the interview process.  New employees must understand your values, see them in action around them, and be rewarded for living them, otherwise they will rely on outside ways and prior learnings, which dilutes cultural alignment and performance.

(1) share your values - do this early and often

(2) provide multiple, ongoing examples of those values in action - never stop

(3) look for opportunities to celebrate new hires when they show cultural alignment (a little recognition goes a long way)

Keep in mind -  it’s not enough to hear the values. It must be clear to employees that these communicated values are both rewarded and pervasive.  

Perpetuating Engagement

Engagement has many contributing factors: a sense of belonging, connection, ownership, and loyalty are all critical factors in engagement. The first two weeks of employment should be very focused on engaging employees.

Engagement can be accomplished in a number of ways but strong coworker relationships are critical toward creating connecting and belonging.  Buddy systems are a good way to create connections. Creating shared experiences and dedicating time for coworker connection are also helpful.  

For Leaders: Consider building early connections with your new team members by writing a “working with me” document and ask your new employee to do the same. Use it to discuss your personal working preferences and have an alignment conversation!  See an example here.  

A few first-hand experiences: Stripe had a library that new employees were encouraged to pick from - In my first week, I was discussing some of the “Stripe Press” books with other members of my onboarding class.  Stripe also randomly paired existing Stripe employees with new hires for lunches and networking, so new employees were organically introduced to others.  Atlassian had new employees write personal intro blogs in Confluence for existing employees to read and react.

Decreasing time to impact

There are obvious benefits when employees are quickly operating on all cylinders. The faster an employee reaches maximum impact, the faster their impact is felt by the business and their team.  But, feeling impactful leads to higher employee engagement and ownership, both critical components of a high performing culture.  Without intentional onboarding time to impact may be longer than necessary.  Think of it this way…

Direct leaders contribute most here.  There are many things a leader can do to accelerate impact.

  1. Document a clear onboarding plan with people they should meet, suggested reading, 30, 60, 90 day plan with outcomes, etc. See a simple version of this here. Also, Trello has a great template for onboarding plans that can be found here and you can build some cool things in Notion as well
  2. Schedule weekly check-ins and be available to enable your new employee
  3. Review team goals, expected outcomes, challenges
  4. Align your new employee with the team and company goals and orient them to their place within the team and the team’s outcomes.
  5. Create an easy early win - build confidence through execution.

A quick personal onboarding anecdote:

I identified as a “Stripe” after my first week on the Stripe team. One thing stands out to me about the experience.  

Onboarding included a deep explanation of Stripe, starting with the history of credit cards and how they monetized, through what an API is, and ending with a pretty comprehensive deep dive into every Stripe product, and what the mission of Stripe was. I felt fully aligned to what our products were, how we made money, how we had evolved and why we existed after my first week. I could explain to my mom what Stripe was. I had a shared understanding with legacy Stripes about what our shared mission was.  It seems trivial but that understanding made me feel like I was already part of something - not like I was waiting to become part of it.

Finally, it’s extremely helpful to measure your new hire experience through surveys.  I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here because Culture Amp has done a great job of framing out new hire surveys to assess the recruiting process, role alignment, engagement, values alignment, and inclusion.

Up next, scaling culture through leaders…..in the meantime, check out “The First 90 Days” by Michael D. Watson and “Product-led Onboarding” which isn’t about employee onboarding, but has some interesting insight that translate well if you think of employees as users and your company culture as a product.