Creating a World-Class Onboarding Program Aligned with Your Culture

onboarding for culture

Your CEO probably doesn’t wake up in a cold sweat thinking about your organization’s onboarding program, but maybe (s)he should. It shocks me that onboarding doesn’t have a more elevated importance in many organizations and isn’t more carefully created to support an organization’s culture. Often, the connection between onboarding and strategy isn’t clear, and details about what makes that organization unique aren’t discussed in detail, if at all, and onboarding is deemed ‘just’ training … a necessary evil.

Here’s why your CEO should care about creating a world-class onboarding program: to bring strategy to life, you need to engage the hearts and minds of all your employees quickly and consistently. You need them to understand your business and their individual place in it, to feel a part of the culture and to be motivated to put forth the discretionary effort to propel your organization to success. Despite the importance of a strong onboarding program, current stats tell us that great onboarding programs are hard to find:

Help! Let’s say your turnover is 20% and you re-hire to make up for that lost workforce. What will it mean to your organization if your onboarding program is sub-par, leaving these new hires—20% of your population—unable to contribute to your strategic goals from the get-go? Can you wait a year while they get up to speed? I didn’t think so. And that’s assuming you are lucky enough to retain your newly recruited talent in the first place.

Fear not. Below are tips on how to engage, mobilize and ultimately retain your sparkly new, often expensively recruited talent. More importantly, you’ll get your CEO’s attention because (s)he’ll have a more productive, tenured, and engaged workforce who is able to drive their change agenda.

Creating a World-Class Onboarding Program
Want to create the best onboarding program for your business? Here are seven tips to achieve this goal.

  1. Immerse them in your culture. Yes, it’s cliché, but culture eats strategy for lunch. Many talented new hires struggle to assimilate into new cultures and never feel a part of the team. Potentially even worse, new hires arriving in management and leadership roles often bring their old corporate cultures with them. Take the time to immerse your new hires in your purpose and desired culture and be honest about where you are on that journey. There’s nothing worse than being promised one thing and experiencing something completely different.
  1. Design the onboarding experience backwards. Organizations often build their onboarding initiatives to only focus on content and don’t spend enough time focusing on how to successfully transfer that knowledge. We have five generations in the workforce, a rise in workplace flexibility, and people glued to their cell phones—all reasons to think harder about how we meet our employees ‘where they’re at’ so we can develop programs that successfully resonate with the interests, tech habits and workplace behaviors of today’s employee.
  1. Pace and sequence onboarding over time. We have an awful habit of making new hires drink through the fire hose, yet we know getting people up to speed quicker does NOT mean giving them more information to consume in a shorter period of time. Don’t get sucked into rushing your new hires through heavy content in only a few days—onboarding is not a race. Also, if we know the first six months to one year are critical retention timelines, why on earth would we only focus onboarding in the first 30-60 days?

Often, the connection between onboarding and strategy isn’t clear …

  1. Give them the puzzle box top. Context is king. Many new hires join a function and are only given information related to their specific department, leaving them with little to no clue as to what is going on with the rest of the business. It is becoming more and more important for employees to collaborate and communicate across silos to help the organization innovate and adapt quicker. So before asking them to own their piece of the puzzle, immerse them in the big picture by giving them the box top view.
  1. Show them how they connect to your strategy. If you are hiring someone, it means they are a critical part of your strategic plan—or at least they should be, otherwise what’s the point? Whether they are part of the cleaning crew or a senior executive, each employee plays a part in bringing your strategy to life. Yet, in the majority of cases, the connection is fuzziest at best … or non-existent at worst. How can you expect your people to execute on your strategy if they don’t even know what that strategy is or how they connect to it? Your new hires at all levels are more capable of ‘getting’ your strategy than your executives give them credit for. Great onboarding programs acknowledge this and focus on how to engage new hires in the big picture strategy from the start. But remember, one-way ‘tells’ do not work and PowerPoints kill! Work on simplifying the complex and use storytelling to engage your new hires in what your organization wants to achieve.
  1. Tool up your managers. One more cliché – people don’t leave companies, they leave managers. Consistently, this is the number one reason people quit and move on to new pastures. So it seems crazy that front-line managers are also the most undervalued and underinvested group within the workforce today. Most managers will tell you they don’t have time to get sucked into nurturing new employees under their watch because they’re too focused on executing tasks. But in that case, maybe we have them focused on the wrong thing? The number one job of your front-line managers is to develop and build high performing teams. We need to make it easier for them to focus on this as their first priority and if they’re struggling, we need to train our managers so they have the right skills and tools to be the best team leaders possible.
  1. Show them their development roadmap. More and more, employees are leaving organizations because they don’t see the development opportunities available to them. The majority of graduates are looking for career advancement over anything else, yet instead of a clear development path, the journey feels more like a dirt track with a bunch of conflicting and poorly designed signs. I keep hearing complaints about Millennials wanting promotions before they’ve proven themselves. Maybe if we’re more upfront about what their journey looks like, how long it takes, and how they’ll get there we’ll nip that argument in the bud?

And there you go. Seven steps to move your onboarding program from being ‘tick the box’ to a strategic enabler, creating a meaningful business impact.

Are you ready to make your onboarding initiative the best it can be? Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the Comments section below.

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Chris is a strategic change expert, with a particular passion for culture transformation and strategic onboarding. He has worked with a large range of global and local organizations on initiatives such as enterprise strategy deployment, operational excellence, IT transformation, and culture change.

Chris speaks regularly at human resources, learning and development, change management, and onboarding conferences and is considered an energy amplifier in group facilitation environments.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Patrick Trottier

    Hi Chris – great suggestions…

    I do have a question though. If “33% of new hires look for a new job within the first 6 months (more among millennials)”, it is probably because they are experiencing the real current culture, then why would immersing them in the current culture of which others that came before (the 33%) are trying to get away from be a good idea?

    It would seem to me that the real root issue is the current, real culture that they are experiencing during their first six months.

    Also, it seems to me that front-line managers job is to create a ‘healthy, performance-based work climate’ from which ‘high performing teams’ will naturally emerge from.

    But, then again, if the current organizational culture is not congruent with stated values, it is difficult for front-line managers to create ‘healthy, performance based work climates’. Training managers in such a ‘world’ of incongruentcy would then also be a ‘double-bind’ message for the front-line managers also.

    Again, I think that the real issue and the effort to attract and retain good people needs to begin at the top corporate levels to create an organizational culture and leaders that can guide, coach and mentor the development of their front-line mangers (vs ‘training’) to develop a congruent ‘work climate’ that attracts and retains people through their experiences during the first 6 months. The responsibility for the development front-line managers is the responsibility of their managers, and their managers, not ‘training departments’ (this is the traditional HR approach that just does not work well – “Have an problem, send them to ‘training'”).


    • Chris Williams

      Hey Patrick – You mention a number of areas that absolutely go towards creating a culture that truly supports strategy – and I see it like a row of dominoes – Yes Culture has to start at the top. Leaders have to walk the talk and ensure there is clarity and alignment on the culture they are creating. Yes, without clear alignment managers will struggle to interpret and translate culture to their reports (and their reports etc), and yes, HR/training is definitely not the answer when it comes to culture. You and I are definitely in sync!

      Turnover can be for a number of reasons, culture of course being a major one (that being said I have come across some organizations that have reputation for solid cultures but have done a terrible job immersing their new hires in that culture – particularly where new hires are joining a branch of a geographically dispersed organization).

      When we think about immersing new hires in culture I think the key word is honesty. Most organizations have an ASPIRATIONAL culture – something we strive to be. For organizations who have culture in transition it’s important to engage new hires in that aspirational culture, but also be transparent about the gap from where we are today. Best in class organizations create dialogue with their new hires around what their role is in helping bridge that gap. That can be hugely empowering and engaging, and ultimately can drive culture from the bottom up

      Does this make sense?

  • Jacqueline Le Fèvre

    Some great points clearly made thank you Chris. I have to agree with Patrick on the point of the the challenge for managers to make the whole process feel congruent if there is a mis match between stated values and the actual practice of the culture.

    On that note of mismatch I am wondering how many of 33% ‘early leavers’ do so not because of any one thing during the on boarding process but more because the feel they get for the employer based on the recruitment and selection process does not resonate with anything they find when they actually arrive. Clever copy and punchy graphics might get you lots of applicants: shiny assessment centres with polished profilers might get you lots of offer accepters; but if none of that is a true expression of what the day to day will be like once they start then they are lost to everyone in onboarding.

    Fortunately it doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s assume the CEO and the rest of the organisation is clear about its strategy and its culture (I know that is a big ask). Let’s also assume the recruitment and selection process expresses these things honestly and creates a conversation through which candidates can reflect upon how their personal values align with those cultural ideals. Finally we’re in a position to design onboarding that picks up those golden threads and translates them into ‘so this is what all that means in the real life of our team’ in ways that managers can then both embody and coach for.

    Patrick is absolutely – congruence is key and when it isn’t there we spot it a mile off!

    • Chris Williams

      Couldn’t agree more Jacqueline! I always think of it like trying to sell a house, and luring people inside by adding a lick of fresh paint to the outside. Of course, when people come inside and the floorboards are missing they quickly leave! I think you’ve hit on one of the most common challenges – we see recruiters selling a very different company/role to the one our new hire experiences when they start work. When designing onboarding processes it’s really important to be very inclusive of recruitment phase.

      Love your last paragraph – hear hear!