Without a clear plan, sometimes your onboarding feels more like “lost at sea” than “smooth sailing.”
Then exciting Day One arrives, and as anyone who’s joined a new company, or taken a promotion, knows, sometimes the process of getting acclimated to your new job – typically called onboarding – can feel more like “lost at sea” than “smooth sailing.”
The organization may – or may not – steer your entry into new waters skillfully on your behalf. They mean well, but they may not have your computer ready, your IDs and passwords set up, or your meetings arranged to meet the team. Although hiring teams have the best intentions, plenty of new hires exist in an awkward limbo for days, or weeks, waiting for their computers to be ready and their boss and their team to give them something to do.
Even worse, in some ways, they may put together a half-baked schedule, assume you’re oriented correctly, and begin to demand huge results immediately. Then, you’re left with people assuming you know things you don’t, without the relationships you need to get work done. Except in rare cases with highly organized employers, most new hires find themselves in this rough spot: thrown into deep waters too quickly without the right information to bouy their introductory progress.
But when you start a new job, who’s really going to be held responsible for the knowledge, skills, and understanding of company culture that will help you become an effective and active member of the organization? At the end of the day – whether they help you with it or not – the person who most needs to take hold of the captain’s wheel here: You.
Most people don’t take ownership for their own onboarding, but the truth is that it’s an area where you have much more control and influence than you may think. Instead of leaving your early days in someone else’s hands, taking on a new role gives you an unmatched opportunity to design the experience – and ultimately the influence – you will need for a long, successful stint with this employer.
Especially now that virtual work is on the rise (see Buffer’s 2021 State of Remote Work), making a plan for your first days and weeks on the job can help you stand out, even in a virtual work environment.
While you do need to take responsibility, however, it doesn’t mean that you should explode on the scene with a list of demands. The suggestions below aren’t meant to serve as a task list for you to hand off to your new team; this is your own plan, to be executed quietly, in alignment with the plan they put in place for you, to give you greater breadth of understanding of your new environment and the role you’ll play.
Generally, your action plan can be organized into three key areas: What are you walking into? Who’s watching you and what do they expect? And how will you set yourself apart?
1 – UNDERSTANDING THE COMPANY: WHAT’S HAPPENING, WHAT DO THEY CARE ABOUT, AND WHAT DO THEY NEED?
Do your own audit of the organization. Early on, you’ll want to proactively get a handle on how things work: the teams, the roles, key projects, skill sets, workflows, systems, expected deliverables, and so forth. What is the current state of these, and where do the biggest pain points seem to be? As you assess the state of the organization, what falls within your role’s official purview? And unofficially, what are the opportunities that exist that could benefit from your leadership?
Take note of themes. From mission statements to values and behaviors, from the company’s goals for the year to your boss’s (and their boss’s) strategic goals, see what your company says about itself, both externally and internally. Additionally, get to know the goals, values and general thematic pain points of your primary customers or constituents. Anything you pitch as ideas for improvement will need to align with these values, if you want to get any traction.
Get inside the data. You’ll definitely want to rapidly assimilate your KPIs: the Key Performance Indicators and data that you’ll be measured against. It’s also wise to understand how data flows through the organization. Consider mapping out the data your team captures and uses; sources of data elsewhere in the organization; data that gets reported on (and data that doesn’t but should); data systems and vendors; and data security. Begin to notice how data can be better leveraged, since data drives a large amount of decision-making and organizational power.
Situate yourself in your industry. When you join an organization, you’re seen as the shiny, state-of-the-art link to the outside world, with the ability to imbue the team with fresh perspective. Therefore, your internal onboarding plan needs to link directly to external trends. While you still have outsider’s eyes, you can keep in mind: What’s happening in the industry that’s directly relevant to your company and your work? What’s emerging that may make our current work processes outdated or inefficient, compared to our peers? Who are our competitors and what are they disrupting? What headwinds are we facing as an organization that my role will help address? Make sure when you talk to people that you’re speaking about state-of-the-art keywords and trends whenever you can.
2 – UNDERSTANDING YOUR STAKEHOLDERS: WHO’S WATCHING YOU AND WHAT DO THEY EXPECT?
Meet your stakeholders, ASAP. It’s important to quickly get to know all of the internal and external stakeholders for this role. In fact, it’s worth creating your own spreadsheet, internal customer relationship management tool (CRM), or other digital or notebook repository where you can keep track of who’s who, and what they most want from you. This is also a good place to capture your observations about their role, personality, preferred communication style, and personal details (family, career history, interests) that will help you build your know/like/trust factor internally as you work together over time.
Get clarity and alignment on your scope. Your stakeholders may or may not have seen your job description, but they’re certain to have their own expectations and hopes for what you’ll accomplish. The sooner you suss out what those hidden hopes are, the more wins you can deliver, and the better your chances of long-term success. After you’ve had a few of these conversations, you may want to draft your own “for real” job description after a few weeks on the job that reflects the day-to-day that your stakeholders expect you to handle, along with a separate “wish list” of the pain points that folks are counting on you to change for the better.
Keep your eyes open for the key players. In every organization, certain people have more influence than others. Who are those folks, and how can you get close to them? As you assess the field of power brokers, key players and the people you most need to align with and impress, pay special attention to how those people operate, and try to mirror what they do well. In the meantime, keep your eyes and ears open for potential mentors within the organization who may serve as a wonderful long-term sounding board for you.
3 – SHAPING YOUR REPUTATION: HOW CAN YOU BE SEEN AS PART OF THE TEAM AND ALSO SET YOURSELF APART?
Help them get to know you while building their perception of your value. When you do get precious time on people’s schedules, it would be a huge missed opportunity if you just show up and wing the part where you tell them about what you bring to the table. You’ll advance the relationship more quickly if you have a plan for how you want to introduce yourself, your experience, and how excited you are about your new role.
Along the lines of “you never get a second chance to build a first impression,” your first few meetings give you a powerful opportunity to build trust right away. Since you need to walk a fine line of displaying your expertise while not coming across as boastful or arrogant, you’ll do best if you have some thoughts and questions planned out in advance.
Orient them to your leadership and vision. Alongside your careful listening and orientation to your stakeholders’ needs, how will you orient team members, peers, and your customers to your values and ideas for change? How can you proactively shape how they think about you so that they see you as someone they look to for guidance? There are many ways to do this, but one example beyond the usual getting-to-know-you job content might be to ask each person you talk to what their favorite business or nonfiction book is, and why.
Get your workflow ducks in a row. Set up your systems for your own efficiency at the outset. Once you get going, it will be harder to change mid-stream. What will be your best practices for handling email, storing data, holding meetings, using collaboration tools, and so on?
Determine your top 3 quick wins and top 3 mid-range wins. It will help your reputation immensely to deliver several wins quickly; sussing out what those should be within your first 15 days is key. Is there something you can deliver faster, better, cheaper within a short time frame? Is there a pile of work they haven’t gotten to that you can plow through in your early days? Focusing on and prioritizing your top 3 wins for the first six months on the job is also important. As you learn about what changes may help spur organizational growth, you’ll need alignment with your team and your boss.
Make a plan for internal networking. The most successful folks, long-term, have a robust internal networking and communication strategy. They’re constantly setting up 1-1 or group calls and meetings to build personal and professional connections, and those conversations give them extraordinary organizational leverage. Give some thought to how you want to shape these encounters. What’s the meeting and networking cadence that will work for you long-term? When will you have team meetings and how will you structure them? How and when will you network and collaborate with your peers internally?
OWN YOUR OWN ONBOARDING
Culled from these suggestions, your company’s plans and your own ideas, a self-directed onboarding action plan helps you take control and immediately establish a positive personal brand with your new employer. It gets you off on the right food with our coworkers, showcases your leadership and initiative, develops a vital network of allies, and gets you insider access to the key information you need to do your job well.
The effort you put in to steer your entry and your reputation at an early stage with this employer will pay off well beyond your first days, months, or even years. By navigating these waters with an intentional and organized approach, you’ll be much better equipped for what’s ahead of you, while also charting a course to success for all future roles to come.
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