Hey Boss: You Are Setting Me Up for Failure

new hire onboarding

A terrible first day at a new job. You show up only to find your wonderful new boss is not ready for you. Nobody greets you. I would like to say I am making this up — but it happened to me. I once sat in the lobby for over an hour waiting to get going at a new job after graduate school.

A bad first day is a sign — it points to a company that is operating under chaos and does not seem to mind it.

The chaos continues well past day one. Usually, second and third bad days follow, as the firehose of random information is turned on and you scramble to take everything in. It can take weeks to find your footing at a company like this.

There are also many thriving organizations that reject chaos but do not have sufficient plans in place to welcome and onboard new hires. This does not mean that these companies do not care about employees. It just means that new hire onboarding is not yet a priority.

And I know the reasons for why not. There is a lot of important work to do and everyone is already working really hard. These programs can be expensive. The boss of the new hire should be qualified to help, everyone thinks. Why do we need formal training? Co-workers can also help get people up to speed — no problem. But this is looking at the situation all wrong.

Onboarding is not a burden or a risk. It is an opportunity to welcome new teammates and make an investment in your company’s future.

Recently, I asked folks on LinkedIn about their experiences getting up to speed at a new job. I was encouraged when I read about some two- or three-week programs. But I also saw people’s frustrations with companies that put no effort into welcoming new hires or setting them up to succeed.

This is why I love to see people’s reactions when I tell them about the Aha! onboarding program. For five to eight weeks (depending on the role), every new teammate gets a deep dive into our product and customers and our culture. This might seem like a long time, but it is far more efficient than the alternative.

If new hires do not understand the product, the customer, the market — all parts of a successful onboarding — it will take them much longer to become productive. Our program shows that we are committed to all of our teammates. It provides structure and consistency, rather than tasking managers with coming up with a plan for each new hire.

Every company is unique, of course. But the Aha! onboarding program has been a huge success for us and I am happy to share some of our insights with you.

Here is how we approached building a comprehensive new hire onboarding program:

Matriculate new hires
You want to build on the excitement when someone decides to join your team. At Aha!, we start onboarding the moment a job offer is accepted. Before new folks officially start working, we send them a few books that reinforce aspects of our business or core values. Not only is this an excellent way to start engaging and teaching leading up to their official start date, it also demonstrates how we are a learning organization.

Welcome widely
It is important to welcome people straight away. We send out a company-wide email introducing each of our new teammates on their first day. An influx of personal greetings from colleagues across the company welcoming this new person to the team comes next. This is not mandated, it is just something that everybody here loves to do because they remember how good it felt on their first day. It is a fantastic representation of our culture and sets a great tone for what is to come.

Engage the leaders
Senior leaders within the organization should be part of your program. I hold a kickoff meeting with new Aha! employees their very first week — giving an overview of the company and our vision. It emphasizes the value we place on transparency and our commitment to streamlining communication, with no big hierarchy or filters to get in the way. And as a bonus, it also gives me the chance to personally welcome each person to the team.

Assign curriculum
New hires should not have to guess at what they need to do. Prepare a curriculum that lays out the topics and lessons for each week. Give people what they need to understand your culture, product, customer, and market. We put together a mix of materials — best practices, blog posts, tutorials, customer support docs — that help new folks understand what makes Aha! different. This gives people a knowledge base to draw from once onboarding ends.

Make it customer-centric
Everybody in your company should understand your customers. After all, customers are the ones who are paying you. So you want your onboarding to be customer-centric and show how the product addresses customer pain points. Since we serve product managers, we have new teammates assume that role by building out their own instance of our roadmapping software — using it to manage a fictitious product. This allows them to experience Aha! as a customer would. It is an excellent exercise in empathy.

Establish milestones
A multi-week program like the one we have may seem daunting at first but it can also be invigorating to a new hire. Defined milestones throughout the process help people stay engaged. It adds a sense of accomplishment. It also helps break out key company and product learnings into manageable chunks that build week over week. In following the program and achieving those milestones, our new hires can ramp up and contribute in a meaningful way, even as they are still learning.

Give a final exam
You want to set criteria for what success looks like from the onboarding program — passing an exam of sorts. For us, this means that new folks (whether they are in marketing, engineering, or any other department) put on their Customer Success hat for a “final exam” and give a live product demo to a potential customer. The live demo is the culmination of weeks of learning about our customers and becoming an Aha! expert. Most people are nervous at first. But everyone ends up saying what a great experience it was.

Celebrate
What is left to do? Celebrate, of course. Recognize the new graduate’s achievement in front of the team — whether that is within one department or in front of the entire company. We have the onboarding coach announce the big news during our weekly company-wide meeting and then the graduate says a few words. This is a good opportunity to highlight the fact that the onboarding program is a shared experience. Everybody has gone through it and knows that this is a moment to be proud of.

When people join a company, they are usually excited and ready to give their best. So why would you not return the investment?

A strong program that welcomes and educates teammates sets everyone up to succeed from day one. I think back to that first job out of graduate school and I remember all of the wasted time, all of the churn that could have easily been avoided if the chaos had been under control.

We put a lot of effort into making sure our new teammates have a much better experience. It is an investment in them and in our company’s future. And the great thing is that everybody benefits.

How do you set up a new teammate for success?

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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