New Leader Onboarding: Time to Go Back to School

“Everyone and everything around you is your teacher.”- Ken Keyes, Jr.

It’s that time again, time when the kids go back to school. With both of my boys now in high school, this is not a new drill for me. Yet, every year is different. There are new teachers, new students, new attitudes, and new chances to learn. For most kids, there’s an excitement to going back to school—a sense of hope and optimism.

And being new at something can also make one vulnerable—Will I make friends? Will I like my history teacher? Will I have any classes with my best friend? Will I get teased?

Part of the vulnerability is realizing that you are about to do or be something you have never been. Kids simply don’t know what it means to be a senior or a freshman or a sophomore because they have never been one. It’s really awesome to think about it. And, that’s why my husband and I couldn’t wait to see our boys that evening after their first day. 

“Well, how did it go? Do you like your teachers? Is so and so in any of your classes? Where’s your locker? Was it easy to get to your classes? Was it fun? So, how do you rate the day, on a scale of 1-10?”

They both gave it an “8”. Not bad, after all it is high school, so that’s probably a 9/10 for most people!

Because I work with companies around leadership development practices that engage their talent, I started to think about back to school and the correlation a new leader feels with joining a new organization. What would it take for a company to receive an 8, 9 or 10 from a new leader on the first day?

Going back to school is a lot like onboarding a new leader, but you really need the following for the day to be a stand-out for your new talent:

  • The boss is wonderful: Just like the right teacher can really bring out the best in a student if the student is willing to learn, the right boss is essential. This boss couldn’t wait to greet the new talent. He/she set expectations and made the new leader feel welcome. He encouraged them to ask questions and made himself/herself available. 
  • They get to do something useful day one: It could be something small, but they leave the first day believing they contributed. 
  • The culture is a good fit: Not every student is a good fit at every school; sometimes a student’s needs are best suited elsewhere. This is probably one of the most overlooked criteria to a new leader’s success. Have you made sure this leader will be a success? Were you honest about what it takes to be successful?
  • They feel really welcomed: Just like it is not unusual to see the school hold a breakfast or a team-building activity on the first day of school, your new hire feels the love the minute you arrive. They know where their office is and have the supplies/tools to be productive on day one. People stop by to say hi or welcome them to the company.
  • The role is clear and the role is aligned his/her skills: Students are not asked to demonstrate knowledge of Algebra II until after they complete Algebra I in school, so hopefully, your new hire feels the job makes the most of the talents and skills they do have. The job description was accurate and expectations are understood.

Does your company make it easy for new talent to feel good about joining the company? Is the new leader onboarding process exciting and fun for those making the decision to work for you? What can you do to help a new colleague or leader feel welcome?“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” – John Wooden

  • Are you creating a physical space that encourages comfort, the ability to relax into new ideas; do you need to change the venue for those creativity sessions?
  • Are you facilitating dialog with a visual focus – a whiteboard or flip chart – so that everyone starts to see a similar “map” of the issue and the possibilities? This is key. We hold so much in our minds that remains unstated and assumed; if we can share a picture of what we are exploring together it moves the conversation to a whole new level.
  • Are you helping them understand the assumptions we all cart into these discussions – the paradigm that defines the prevailing opinion and challenging those views in a way that opens the aperture on the camera lens so to speak? Some common assumptions you may run into are:
    • oh, we tried that already
    • they’ll never give us budget for it
    • we don’t have the resources
    • so-and-so just doesn’t appreciate our work
  •  And at the end of the session (which, we’re sorry, but needs to be longer than 30 minutes or even an hour), are you and the group summarizing the insights, the takeaways and the timeframes for practical application?

Yes, it’s about process – moving a group through defining the goal of the conversation, the reality of the situation, the ideas or options, and then what’s next. But, even more, it’s more about the tools and the way you use them. 

The couch (the space). The whiteboard (or flip chart). The probing questions. The artful listening. The commitment to act.