Successfully Onboarding New People: You're here, so now what?

Welcome to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. In a world where knowledge has become a commodity, this podcast is designed to give you something more; access to the experience of a successful CEO who has already walked the path. So join your host Martin Moore, who will unlock and bring to life your own leadership experiences, and accelerate your journey to leadership excellence.

Hey there. Welcome to Episode 55 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership Podcast. This week's episode, Successfully Onboarding New People: You're here, so now what? After a question from our dedicated listener Bill, I'm going to address the issue of how to bring new people into your organisation successfully. We sometimes take for granted that when people join our team, they will intuitively know what to do, and they'll seamlessly assimilate into the culture, becoming productive almost immediately. This of course builds on the burgeoning love affair that developed during the recruitment and selection process. Then reality sets in. In this episode I'll not only unpick some of the myths around bringing new people on board, but also talk about the psychological contract you have with your people and how to protect the integrity of that contract from day one. So that's where we'll start. What is the psychological contract and why it's so important? We'll cover off on how people's perceptions of your organisation change over time. We'll touch on the three key areas of onboarding and induction. And I'll finish off with my favourite, traps for young players. So let's get into it.

In simple terms, the psychological contract is the unwritten set of expectations and perceptions that exist between an employer and an employee. It was first described formally by Denise Rousseau in the late 1980s. This contract is not like a formal written contract, it's continually evolving based on the communication, or lack of communication in some cases, between an employer and an employee. A big part of this revolves around managing expectations. And a lot of it comes down to what is perceived by each party to be fair and reasonable. Any breaches or deviations from the psychological contract by a leader can significantly damage the motivation and continuing commitment of their people.

Because it is perception based, every psychological contract with every individual can be different. What might seem entirely fair and reasonable to me, may seem excessive and unreasonable to you, even if we are peers in the very same team. So why am I starting here? You begin to establish the psychological contract during the recruitment process, and how well someone is treated when they first enter the organisation can have significant bearing on how they feel. Are they excited because the role turns out to be everything they thought it would be, or do they have a serious case of buyer's remorse?

For example, you're an employee starting a new role. In your first week, you learn that there's an implicit expectation that you are on call 24/7. However, at no stage during the interview process was this made apparent to you. This would most likely constitute a breach of the psychological contract, and the result would be in the best case, disengagement and a lack of productivity, or in the worst case, a premature resignation.

With a psychological contract though, the door swings both ways. Let's take another example. Let's say you go through the selection process as an applicant and are eventually appointed to a role. After you commence work, you then declare a material personal issue. Let's say you have a rare sensitivity to blue light that prevents you from spending more than two hours per day in front of a computer screen. That would breach the psychological contract, and your employee would lose faith in you almost immediately, not because of your condition, but your lack of transparency about it.

What does this have to do with onboarding new people? Well, realise that the onboarding process begins in the interview room. Be mindful to be as accurate and comprehensive as possible in how you portray the organisation, the role, the people, and the culture. Every new person is bound to realise eventually what they've got themselves into, and when they do, you want it to be as consistent as possible with the picture you painted for them in your initial interactions. You start to build a psychological contract in your very first exposure to a prospective employee, so make sure that what people see and hear in the recruitment process is truly representative of the organisation.

Let's move on to explore how people's perceptions of your organisation change over time. Now for example, at CS Energy, we put a lot of time into thinking about and developing what we called the employee value proposition. We surveyed people who had applied for jobs at all different levels and locations and made it through to the interview process. We wanted to know about their perceptions of the organisation throughout that process. For example, what did you think about CS Energy before you applied for the job? What did you think about after the interview process? What happened when you commenced employment? How did your views change? And three months in, were your views still the same?

It was amazing to see the change in perceptions over time. However, we used this knowledge to develop the employee value proposition so that we could market the organisation more effectively to prospective employees. Your perceptions before knowing anything about the organisation at all, were very, very different from what you would find if you went through the whole process and ended up taking a job and then worked in the organisation. So it was all based around the fact that whatever you think you know about the company now, here's what we know it's like based on the experience of people just like you.

Now of course bearing in mind the individuality issue, this isn't foolproof, but it was a really good way of collecting the data that said: here's what the organisation really looks like from someone who's new coming in. This gave us a lot of confidence that we weren't overselling the opportunity, and it was less likely that someone would get a rude shock after actually turning up. In terms my personal approach to bringing people on board, I'm always at pains to go too far the other way. I would always take potential executives through all of the gory details about the organisation, what was hard, why it was such a challenge, and why it would present a really difficult prospect for them, with success by no means assured. I'd say things like, "I will demand you to be at your best and to do the difficult things that need to be done to move your part of the business forward. Is that okay?" Or something like, "I know how smart and experienced you are, but no one gets a free kick on their leadership development. Are you really prepared to go through that?"

But funnily enough, no matter how tough the challenges I painted, people would always nod and smile and say, "Yeah, Marty, I get it." Invariably though, at some point in the first three months, they will come to me and say, "I know that you told me this, but I didn't realise you meant that." People often look through rose coloured glasses when they vying for role, for a range of reasons. Sometimes they just have a pressing need to get out of the job they're in, sometimes they're not currently employed at all and they're looking for work, or sometimes it's simply just the great career step they're looking for. But don't make it any worse by misrepresenting the role, the organisation, the opportunity, or the culture as being better than it actually is.

Let's talk about the onboarding and induction process itself. Now, this really happens in three distinct parts. The first is the first impression you give people when they start. The second is the mechanics and formalities. The third is the commencement of the leadership dialogue. First impressions really count. I had someone comment to me recently how great their experience was when starting with a new company. When they walked in on that first morning, they were shown to their office, which was clean and tidy. Their name was already on a plaque on the door. Their new iPhone and tablet were waiting for them on their desk. They had an HR person waiting to present them with their induction kit, and an IT person was scheduled within half an hour to ensure all the technology worked without a hitch. She told me that this made her feel really special and valued, and that this confirmed in her mind that it was a right move to join the company.

Now in some companies, we might recognise this as 'peaking too early', but gee, what a great impression to give first up. Alternatively, can you imagine if someone turns up on the first day and you say, "Oh, gee, I'm really sorry. I thought you were turning up next Monday! If I'd realised I would've had someone remove all these boxes from your workstation and get rid of all the previous occupants files from the last seven years. Now look, I've got meetings all morning, but make yourself comfortable and I'll try to get half an hour with you at 11:30." Completely different first impression.

Now, a quick confession just between you and me, but don't tell anyone. During my career, I've managed at times to lean towards both ends of that spectrum. But this is a pretty easy one to get right, it just takes a little thought, a little planning, and thinking about how you want the new person to feel when they join you. The moral of the story is get the first impression right.

The second part of the onboarding process is what I call the mechanics. The best thing that you can do for the mechanics is to provide a detailed checklist of all the things that the new person can expect in the first days, weeks, and months of their employment. What are the conditions of their probationary period if it's applicable, what processes and procedures they need to be across and follow, what online inductions do they need to complete and be certified in? Now just as a sidebar, I'm not a big fan of online inductions. I think they are of limited value, but they're sort of a necessary evil. Generally, they go in one ear and out the other. This is not the most important thing, but it's good to give people some structure. It also gives you the comfort that people have access to things they might potentially need and that you don't forget to tell them anything.

In a smaller business, you won't have the infrastructure and support to get all of this set for the mechanics, so just to something that's fit for purpose, as long as you're doing something. Just a page or two about any rules and processes they need to follow, access to any documents that might be relevant to them to help them find their way around. Let them know where the toilets are for goodness sake. Just make sure that they feel as though they're being given some information immediately that gets their feet under the desk.

Now, I'm not going to spend any more time on the mechanics, because what's much more important is the commencement of the final piece of the induction process, which is the leadership dialogue. And I say the commencement of the final piece, because this is the ongoing process. It seeks to develop understanding over time of key imperatives. What do I expect from you? What culture are we trying to create? What values are important to us? Are there any no-go zones, things I simply can't tolerate? For me, I always had one of these that I'd slip in when I inducted a new executive. "Don't ever hide bad news from me. That is a show stopper. If you withhold bad news, what you're doing is taking away my ability to manage the situation and I'll view that really, really dimmly." So I make that really, really clear right from the get go. The leadership dialogue gives you the opportunity to get to know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and it gives the new person the opportunity to ask questions and clarify what they're observing in the organisation.

When it comes to expectations, make it really, really clear. What are the big ticket items you want them to get after? What are your expectations around timeframes? Once again, I have pretty simple rules around this. For executives, I use three plus three. The first three months, I don't want anything out of you. What I want you to do is to understand where you are, learn about the organisation, learn about your people, learn about the culture, and learn about where the problems are. That first three months, I just want you to spend understanding what's going on. The second three months, that's when you start putting together a mud map of what you're going to do. Because at the end of six months, you need to be able to come to me with a pretty strong plan for how you're going to lead your division forward. And so that three plus three rule, I would articulate right from day one and reinforce it all the way through with the leadership dialogue.

This requires many conversations in the first six months. You're building the relationship and the understanding between you and the new person. You want to let them discover things for themselves, but equally you don't want them to operate in a vacuum. Make it clear if you have any firm views on the work programme, their team capability, or any structural issues that are holding their team back.

The conversation about culture and values is really important. Most senior leaders will already know the 'what', which is actually why you hired them. They have professional skills and experience that give them a good base to work from, but make it clear what you expect in terms of the 'how'. In that critical first few months, give them plenty of opportunity to calibrate their expectations with yours and give them a decent crack at being successful. What they do after that is pretty much up to them.

Alright, let's wrap up with some traps for young players. Trap number one, overselling the opportunity. Now, we mentioned this when talking about the psychological contract, but don't oversell the opportunity or misrepresent the organisation in any way. The recruitment process gives you and your potential hire a chance to screen each other. It's just not helpful to anyone to hire a person under false pretences. Problem is, most of us don't mean to oversell the opportunity, but we tend to talk only about the positive aspects of the organisation.

Number two, assuming that the new starter knows things they don't. One of the big mistakes we all make is to not recognise just how much of our knowledge is tacit. We make mental leaps based on information we have about the organisation and its context that a new person couldn't possibly have access to. In a conversation with the new starter, always give them more context than you think they might need. For example, I would start many a sentence with a new starter by saying, "Stop me if I'm telling you how to suck eggs, but ..."

Number three, not communicating sufficiently about your expectations and your philosophy. Now, you need to do this rapidly and emphatically. People will learn to find their way around many things, but don't leave their interpretation of culture and values to chance. Don't be afraid to be very direct about how you expect them to behave and perform.

Number four, not providing clear boundaries and parameters on the really big ticket items. Make sure you convey very clearly your appetite for making major change, strategy, structure, people, and so forth. Give them a sense of your expectations for speed of results, and give them time to work out the things that you already know, but make sure your views on the material issues align at some point.

Trap number five, finally, enabling change for change sake. Every new leader wants to put their own individual stamp on things. They might bring in some trusted lieutenants from past roles. They might bring in tools that they're accustomed to using, processes and systems and so forth. But you need to have some oversight of what they're planning, and make sure they can explain to you how the changes will create additional value for the organisation. If not, you're going to need to pull them back a little. Make sure they understand where they can and cannot step when considering the changes they want to make.

Just wrapping up, onboarding new people is all about communicating clearly to get on the same page, and making sure they understand what they have to do to be successful in their role. It's an interactive, ongoing process that continues until your working relationship is in a place where you're both comfortable that the person knows what's expected of them. This could take as little as a month or as long as six months, but assuming you've done your part in the onboarding process, if you haven't managed to reach this point in six months, you may need to think about whether that person is ever going to make it.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 55. Thanks so much for joining us and remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. If you're enjoying this podcast, please share it with the leaders in your network, because this is how we improve the world of work. I'll look forward to next week's episode, Dealing With Change Resistance.

Until then I know you'll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.