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Onboarding: From Anxiety to Achievement

By Katherine Craig

Human Resources Management Association, PeopleTalk Magazine, Spring 2011


After short-listing seven candidates, the hiring committee at a national non-profit organization offered Ann the position as Regional Director of Funds Development. She came with exceptional credentials and had the best interview the Executive Director had witnessed. She was welcomed into the management team with enthusiasm and high expectations; it seemed like the perfect match. Within a week of arriving at her new post, though, the other Directors began to treat her as a rival rather than a colleague; their long-standing relationships and internal routines seemed impossible to navigate and she felt increasingly alienated. Despite some initial successes in her assigned role, the Executive Director gave little feedback and, at one point, suggested that Ann should lower her expectations of her team. Frustrated and disheartened, Ann withdrew during meetings and dreaded coming to the office each day; she avoided the staff room and ate lunch in her office. It was evident that she was not fitting in to the office culture and while she knew she was capable of meeting performance targets, she was struggling. Ann was considering abandoning the position; the ED was considering terminating her before her probation period elapsed.

After weeks of recruiting, interviewing and vetting you've finally found the perfect candidate for the job: your new Division Manager starts in three weeks and you're optimistic about the impact she'll make. However, statistics suggest that it will take six to nine months for your new leader to tip the "Breakeven" scale: six to nine months for this high level staffer to stop drawing down your bottom line and start creating value for your organization.

Why? Because, unless you've hired from within, your new manager will spend those first few months adapting to a new corporate culture; subordinates will spend that same time adapting to a new leadership style.

The anxiety associated with starting a new job can be crippling in the early going and can mask the qualities for which you hired this leader in the first place. Finding the perfect candidate for a leadership role is certainly important; helping that candidate adjust to their new environs is absolutely critical. Regardless of their credentials, your new hire simply doesn't parachute into the job and start churning out results.

One way to understand the phenomenon is to travel back in time to your first day of high school. You've graduated into the big leagues because you passed all your classes and you know you've got what it takes to crack your new courses. But what about the social aspect? Will you be able to find your friends at lunch, your locker, your classroom? Are you wearing the right clothes? What if no one likes you? What if you don't fit in? These are the issues that could haunt even the strongest student, and they could certainly stall your performance during the first few weeks of school.

You're a kid, though, so you share your concerns with your friends, you compare notes, and you formulate a plan to mutually overcome the hurdles. By sharing your anxiety and creating strategies to manage it as part of a peer group - something sophisticated like 'let's all meet by the doors to the gym when the lunch bell rings' - you alleviate the stress and get on with the business at hand, such as passing Algebra.

Unlike a high school student, though, your new manager probably won't consult a co-worker at the water cooler on how to best fit in at the next staff meeting. They typically won't seek out a peer group to consult because that would be an admission of a short-coming, it would weaken their position as a new manager, potentially undermine their authority. No, as adults we tend to isolate ourselves in our discomfort and hope that time will pave over the bumps in our new employment journey. And, interestingly, many employers accept that reality and patiently wait for their new hire to arrive at the Breakeven Point at their own pace and under their own steam.

Can employers afford to wait six months for a return on their investment? Should employers wait six months for a return on their investment? Staffing represents the single largest ongoing investment a company makes, so why wouldn't a company strive to maximize their return on this perpetual investment at the earliest possible moment?

There are group on-boarding programs that employees access once they've begun their tenure with a company. These large-scale programs are excellent for procedural orientation; however, they don't allow HR managers to address individual concerns or anxieties, particularly those that crop up before an employee's first day on the job. One of the newest on-boarding tools available on the market, the New Hire Coaching Program, is an economical, short-term solution that works in concert with existing HR initiatives and provides employers with customised, one-on-one support for new employees.

How does it work? Within 72 hours of hiring, a designated coach makes contact with your new hire to welcome them onboard and arrange for the first of seven one-on-one sessions. The initial meeting occurs before their first day on the job, then every two weeks for the next three months this 'personal trainer' guides your new leader through a dialogue about the challenges they're facing as they transition into their new role.

This confidential sounding-board provides an invaluable resource for your employee as they 'learn the ropes' in their new position and establish confidence in their leadership. It creates a bond between the new hire and your company, sending a signal to present and potential staff that you value your employees and are willing to invest in their professional development right from the start.

In an HR climate where highly skilled professionals are also highly mobile, any tool that gives you a competitive edge to capture and retain top notch leaders is an asset. Targeted on-boarding tools like the New Hire Coaching Program can deliver the expertise you need without taxing your internal resources, and will accelerate your journey to the Breakeven Point. A small, short-term investment can reap large, lasting rewards.