“We Didn’t Onboard Her. We Waterboarded Her!”

I recently sat with a CEO who just lost an administrative assistant. The assistant had aced an arduous interview process. She was hired with great anticipation.

Then quit after only two days on the job.

The CEO didn’t blame the newly departed hire. His assessment: “We didn’t onboard her. We waterboarded her!”

Though it’s a stretch to compare an enhanced interrogation technique to bringing a new employee into a company, management consultant Liz Kislik suggests that onboarding, from a new employee’s perspective, can feel like torture.

The CEO told me they had accelerated the normal onboarding process with this hire. They skipped some steps because of deadlines and someone else’s transition. It’s a fast-moving place and he certainly sets the pace. It wouldn’t be an easy job for most and being thrown into the water without swimming lessons for this culture would be a challenge for the strongest of hires.

Which is why she quit. And why it stands as a good lesson for us all.

The Challenge of Perspective

Dan Pink told me in an interview about his book To Sell is Human there’s an inverse relationship between power and perspective. The more responsibility you get, the more challenging it is to remember what it’s like to be the rookie.

The longer a politician is in office, the more they forget what it’s like to be an ordinary citizen. The higher you get in an organization, the easier it is to forget the struggle to make a rent payment.

(Early in my career an executive was answering questions during a town hall meeting. An employee was complaining about all the deductions in their paycheck, such as FICA–the social security deduction in the United States. The executive replied, “Um, isn’t that the deduction that’s only there for, like, one or two pay periods?” Perhaps that’s true when your salary is the GDP of a small country! He had clearly lost the perspective of the rank and file!)

More to the point of this discussion, it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be the new person. Whether it’s a new hire to your company this year or just someone new to your team, don’t under-estimate the effort required to learn your team culture.

Diving into a New Culture

Dr. Ed Schein is the esteemed MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Emeritus. Ed is widely regarded as the guy who coined the term corporate culture. He told me in an interview that culture is much more complex than most people appreciate. In short, it’s how things get done. It’s what has always worked. And much of what makes up culture is unstated, what Ed calls tacit assumptions.

Do you think your onboarding process has all of these assumptions covered? Ed might suggest you think again.

  • Don’t minimize the time and effort to get the new team member up-to-speed.
  • Assume there are acronyms and terms that are unclear to the new person.
  • Make it safe to ask questions.
  • Help them understand both the written and unwritten rules of the team.
  • Don’t baby them, for sure, but also don’t expect they’ll be at full stride on day 2 (or it might be their last)!

How The New Hire Can Help You

Here’s one last idea: their new eyes on your team might just be a gift. Often they will see things that have become invisible to you and the team. Andy Stanley suggests in his leadership podcast that you intentionally ask people for their feedback. Andy suggests a formal feedback process at three months and twelve months after joining the team.

Ask them questions, such as:

  • What has surprised you the most about being on our team?
  • What is your biggest frustration?
  • What do we do that doesn’t make sense or seems to be off-purpose?
  • Do you have the tools you need to do your job?

Gary Klein, author of Seeing What Others Don’t, reinforces this notion that tapping into these fresh perspectives can draw attention to our blindspots.

Turning a Loss into a Win

We could argue that losing someone after two days on the job is better than losing them at two months. However, in both cases, it’s a sign of a problem. Here’s to better onboarding and less waterboarding for you and your team this year.

Please add your voice to this discussion. What mistakes have you seen when it comes to integrating someone new into a team or organization? How do you try to help new team members? I look forward to hearing from you!

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