Corporate strategy execution - bulb illustration

“Onboarding” is a term used on cruise ships, but most companies don’t operate on boats. And starting a new position or understanding your role in launching a new strategy can be a lot harder than walking up a gangplank. It can mean sinking or swimming in an unfamiliar environment.

Over the past year, many people have been downsized, left for greener pastures, started a new job in a different industry, or found themselves redeployed in a totally new role. Whatever the reason, it feels the same way. You’re starting something new.

Tapping into new employees to maximize their contributions as soon as possible is a core purpose of onboarding. The processes of assimilating a new person into a company can run the gamut from tactical orientation to skill training. However, the true accelerator of assimilating a person into a new role is remembering and recognizing what it feels like to be “onboarded.” In our experience, there are three feelings you get when you learn that you have a new role or responsibilities. First, you feel insecurity about your skills. A voice in your head challenges you, asking, “Can you really do this? Do you really fit here?”

Some time ago, the daughter of a friend graduated from college and took an interim summer job at a restaurant. She began with great excitement, which quickly diminished into fear. Her onboarding process included the all-too-common “watch this video, read this booklet, and then follow Joe around.” It’s critical to help people in new positions – whether they’ve been at the company for 10 minutes or 10 years – feel as if they have been chosen for this job because of their skills and knowledge, and that they are part of the team for the future.

If our new and repurposed people are questioning whether they can do the job, their discomfort is often replaced with a lack of confidence or a lack of value. Possibly one of the most important insights of leading change and maximizing anyone’s contributions in the midst of change is the recognition that if any of us do not feel valued in our role, we will spend our time trying to get it (for ourselves) rather than creating it for our companies.

The second feeling is the uncertainty that you belong to the future – an important point for people who have been reassigned within a company. People should not have to ask, “Am I part of the past? Am I just hanging out here until I become the next casualty?” What they should be saying is, “I am part of the new, re-energized team of the future!” The fact is that none of us have been where we want to go, and all of us will have to do things that we have never done! This natural discomfort can’t be confused with not belonging to the future. Onboarding needs to include the confirmation that, yes, you will be here and you are the talent for our new destination.

At Root Learning, we draw a caricature of each new person and put it on our “family” wall on day one of employment. This says, loud and clear, that “you are part of this group.” It’s a conscious symbol of onboarding that really makes a statement. It lessens the sense that there’s some kind of contest about who’s staying and who’s not, and focuses on the importance of everyone’s efforts to help us reach our future goals.

A third feeling is concern about your limitations. When Michael Jordan was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame, he said, “Don’t be surprised if you see me on the basketball court when I’m 50, because limits and fears are often illusions.” Part of great onboarding or reorientation is reinforcing that absolute resilient belief that you are a member of the team for the new destination. Possibly, at a previous job or in a former role, you were “famous” for something else, and you doubt that you can do as well in this new position. There is an African word, “ubuntu,” that means “I have value because you have value.” When we know that others around us feel that we have an intrinsic value, we don’t have to work to prove that value. We can focus on what we do best – what we are world-class at – and if that’s different or new or scary, so what? Fear and limitations are often illusions.

Onboarding or reorientation should stress the reasons why a person is valuable to the future of the organization. So whether someone is making the shift from outside to inside or from inside to another place inside, when we say “onboarding,” we really mean renewal, reinvigoration, revitalization, and re-energizing. We mean rediscovering what a person is best at and most capable of in new ways. It’s all about connecting people to what’s ahead – and assuring them that they belong in it and that their contributions can make a significant difference.

January 23, 2010


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