Onboarding: When to start; how far to take it?

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Onboarding – or the process of employee orientation – actually starts earlier than you might think! Where once onboarding was timed into the ‘next round of inductions’, perhaps weeks after an appointment commenced, now it’s better seen as part of the recruiting phase.

And early onboarding is vital in dealing with some recent trends evident in the recruiting process, whereby employers may lose new staff members before Day 1 in the job!

And if it’s vital for staff at all levels, it’s more so for new leaders and managers.

Minimising the impact of Job Hoarding, Ghosting

A couple of disturbing trends (disturbing to employers and recruiters that is!) have emerged in the last few years. 2017 saw the emergence of ‘job hoarding’ by sought-after talent, with an increase in candidates reneging on job offers (sometimes involving them accepting multiple job roles, and using some offers as a platform for negotiation with potential employers). In 2018-19, the phenomenon of ‘ghosting’ has been more evident. Ghosting generically is where someone suddenly breaks off all communication as a way of ending a relationship –the word has taken a place in dictionaries including the likes of Cambridge and Oxford. While in the past Ghosting was more likely to happen to candidates (you just never hear back from the employer), now it goes both ways, with hiring firms finding that a shortlisted candidate, even an appointee, has disappeared before the hiring process was wrapped up.

The period between job offer acceptance and employee start date is critical to successful onboarding. It’s vital that components such as reference and background checks don’t overly delay an appointment. Tech-based solutions are evolving to enable organisations to launch reference and background checks immediately after a job offer is accepted.

This process allows recruiters and the employer’s management & HR teams to engage early with their new team member, and ensure a seamless integration even before day one. HR can also simplify the onboarding experience for new hires and improve time-to-productivity. Hiring managers as the drivers of the entire onboarding process are more actively involved through a streamlined, step-by-step experience.

Beyond Onboarding

Today, even doing “onboarding” as it’s traditionally been handled is probably not enough. According to some leading experts in the field (including Michael D. Watkins, professor at IMD & author of The First 90 Days) ‘Onboarding’ can be an apt term for the way many organisations support new leaders’ transitions, because not much more is involved than bringing the executive safely on deck! After that, he or she is expected to sort things out with little or no guidance.

As a development of onboarding, ‘Integration’ suggests a more aspirational goal — doing what it takes to make the new person a fully functioning member of the team as quickly and smoothly as possible. And that approach is not so common yet, but it can be, in your workplace!

When executives are well-integrated, they can build momentum early on and reduce the average amount of time to full performance by a third, from six months to four.

The Five Tasks of a new leader

What’s actually involved in ‘going beyond’ onboarding? For a new leader, becoming fully functioning involves getting on top of the essential aspects of the role, efficiently and effectively. One model suggests that there are five major tasks that leaders must successfully undertake in their first few critical months. These are the areas in which they need the greatest integration support:

  1. Assuming operational leadership.
  2. Taking charge of the team.
  3. Aligning with stakeholders.
  4. Engaging with the culture.
  5. Defining strategic intent.

Together these five transition tasks present a challenge. Effective integration is much more likely when leaders understand early how much progress they’ll need to demonstrate in each area during the first few months. That way they can prioritise effectively. Stumbling in any area can lead to serious problems or derailment.

The Spectrum of Support

Given how critical integration is to a new leader’s success, you’ll want to assess your organisation’s integration program by looking at how effectively you support executives in these five areas.

Support varies from minimal to comprehensive, and can be seen as falling into four levels:

1. Sink or swim.

At this level, organisations do little more than provide a new executive with space and basic resources such as technology (and assistant/s where applicable).

2. Basic orientation.

This level involves sharing information about company policies, team member evaluations, organisational structure, strategy, and business goals and results. Essentially, the company provides raw data, and the new leader studies and interprets it independently. It’s thought that up to two-thirds of organisations still take this approach.

3. Active assimilation.

This is where the organisation sets up meetings for new hires with key stakeholders to accelerate a transfer of deeper knowledge about the business, the team, the culture, and strategic priorities. This goes beyond the bare minimum. But without a shared understanding of major differences between an executive’s former context and the new one, it can be difficult to know how much meeting time will be needed. And without prior briefing, the executive may neglect organisationally sensitive issues that he or she should address.

4. Accelerated integration.

At this ideal level the organisation orchestrates custom-designed experiences that enable a new leader to integrate more fully and rapidly. These might include team-building workshops and deep-dive discussions about strategy. The organisation helps the new executive identify specific cultural challenges to be overcome. It appears that only a very small percentage of organisations address integration this systematically.

What to do

Armed with this brief information, you can assess your own approach on a matrix – looking at the level of onboarding support you are providing against the 5 tasks of a new leader. You might score well on one area, ok on others, and badly on some.

This will soon tell you where to pick up your game to ensure that your leaders are not only onboard, but positioned for high performance, and longevity in the role, as early as possible.

If you’d like more assistance with onboarding, and in particular with a program to optimise integrating your new leaders, contact Paul Murphy on 0417-013-214, or email paul@atworkexec.com.au

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