If we were to ask most managers about their most valuable competitive advantage, the vast majority would describe it as their “people.” After all, regardless of how good the design of our products or services may be, it still almost always requires people to produce and/or deliver them. Appropriately, companies spend huge sums of money on recruiting — trying to identify, attract, and ultimately hire the right people to help them succeed. And yet, after doing so, far too many of these same companies unwittingly set their people up to fail.
While we all recognize the importance of “getting the right people on the bus,” as Jim Collins famously put it, only the very best companies recognize that what happens when the new employee first steps on that bus is absolutely crucial in determining how long and how successfully he/she rides with us. In fact, I often tell CEOs that the most important week in any employee’s entire career with a company is his very first week. What happens that week will have a tremendous and disproportionate influence on whether he ultimately succeeds or fails in your organization, and you only have one chance to do it right. You can’t go back and redo the first week one year later!
The First Impression
Think about when you started your last job. What was that first day/week like? Was everyone in the company ready for you? How did they demonstrate their commitment to your success? Was your work area set up? How did it take you to learn the key things you needed to know about the company? How long did it take to get to know the other employees? How did these impressions affect you?
Integration, not Orientation
Most companies have some sort of onboarding or orientation program for starting new employees. I like to use the word “integration” program instead, because I think it has a very different implication. Orientation suggests that you’re going to tell the new employee about your company. Integration, however, suggests that you’re going to make that person an integral part of the organization. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s essential that this program be well thought out, thorough, and deliberate. Not only are you teaching the new employee critical information, but you’re also setting a standard. Think of a new employee as an important customer. How will you expect that person to do fabulous work for your firm’s customers if you demonstrate poor planning, sloppiness, and poor execution in how you deal with him?
In my former company, we developed a world-class integration program that never ceased to amaze new hires. To be sure, integration actually starts before the first day because you’re sending messages to people even in how you deal with them in the recruiting process. We paid particular attention to ensuring that every interaction was reflective of the quality organization we were. Let me highlight just a handful of the practices that set us apart:
By the time our integration process was finished, they typically knew more about our company than they did in ten years at their previous employer. Most importantly, they knew they worked for an amazing company and were chomping at the bit to get to work to prove that they were worthy of this opportunity and were good enough to play at this level.
As the President, I sent a personal, handwritten note to the home of every new employee and followed that up with several other handwritten notes, all before the first day even arrived.
On the first day, the new employee was met at the front door by a mentor and was greeted by welcome signs and a welcome plant. Their desk was ready, their computer was set up, and their business cards were already printed and on their desk.
The new employee was given an integration manual that included their schedule for every hour of the one- to two-week integration: who they were to meet with, where, what they were to learn, nightly homework assignments, etc.
During integration, the employee would meet with a wide variety of people who would teach them everything from our culture to our history to our strategy to our finances to what each department does. They would also learn the names of our approximately 100 other employees.
The Three Components All Integrations Must Include
Obviously, your integration program must be tailored to the unique needs of your company. Whether your program is one half day, two days, two weeks, or two months, it’s critical that you be disciplined about doing it every time, without fail. There are always pressures to get someone started doing their real work as quickly as possible, and with those pressures comes the temptation to abbreviate, or even skip, integration. Remember that you can’t do that first impression later.
Regardless of the length of your program, there are three components that all effective integration programs should somehow include. I call them culture, context, and logistics.
Culture, of course, refers to how you communicate your values, your vision, your mission, etc. These need to be explained overtly, not left for the employee to somehow figure out. I spent two full hours with every single new employee, always on the very first day, talking about our culture and values in great details. The very fact that it was done by me and on the first day sent a pretty clear message as to its importance to our organization.
Context refers to the process by which the new employee understands the various pieces of your company, what it does, its formula for success, and most importantly, how the employee’s role fits into this picture. The more the employee understands her contribution to your success, the more engaged she’ll be, and the more prepared she’ll be to make an impact.
Logistics refers to all the mundane things a new person needs to know in order to get down to work. These are things like how to work the voicemail system, how to work the copy machines, who to talk to if their computer doesn’t work, etc. It’s amazing how a lack of knowledge of these simple things can impede an employee’s effectiveness. Figure out the most important things everyone needs to know and teach them up front.
I always encourage employers to think long-term when considering how much time and effort they can afford to put into integration. For example, consider the impact on productivity of a one-week integration process. If viewed from the perspective of one month, this means you’ve lost 25% of an employee’s potential productive time — a pretty big cost. However, if we look at it from the perspective of a year, it’s only a loss of about 2%. If we look at it from the perspective of five or ten years, we realize that the lost productivity is virtually negligible and yet the positive impact on the rest of their career is enormous.
Start Small, But Be Consistent
The integration program my company developed was the result of many years and iterations of improvement. One of the questions we asked every new employee after integration was, “How can we improve the process to make it more effective?” Literally every single integration incorporated at least one or more improvements based on what we learned from previous ones, but its origins were small and simple.
It’s far better to have a two-hour integration program that covers the three key components and is implemented with unfailing consistency than it is to have a comprehensive two-week program that falls by the wayside because it was too difficult to sustain. Start small, be consistent, and continuously improve.
Getting the right people on the bus is a prerequisite for success, but how you bring those passengers aboard can make it break whether or not you ever get to your intended destination. An effective integration program is essential to setting your people, and in turn, your organization, up for success.
David Friedman is the former President of RSI, an award-winning employee benefits brokerage and consulting firm in the Philadelphia area. The author of Fundamentally Different: building a culture of success through organizational values, Friedman is a sought-after consultant, guest speaker and seminar leader on organizational culture, leadership, and values.