First Impressions Really Do Count

Whether new managers’ memories of their first days on the job are good or bad will be based on the quality of your onboarding program.

No matter how fancy your learning solutions are, and no matter how innovative your technology is or how creative your design team, effective onboarding is defined by new employees’ experiences. The fact that some organizations spend little time and effort on onboarding is quite surprising to me. So, what makes onboarding a critical aspect of talent development? More specifically, why spend the resources and effort on effective onboarding of managers?

People rarely forget their onboarding experiences, positive or otherwise. It’s a time of significant transition for them at many levels, including the intellectual, social, and environmental aspects. In their book The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath detail the new employee experience at John Deere: Immediately after accepting an offer, the new employee receives an email from a fellow employee at John Deere who personally welcomes him with visible excitement, introduces herself as his peer, and shares a photo of herself so he can recognize her when she meets him at the entrance at 9 a.m. on his first day. The new employee releases a sigh of relief, knowing he will not be searching the hallways lost and looking for his new workspace.

Fast forward to day one at John Deere: On his way to the lobby, the employee notices a huge sign with the words “Welcome Jason!” His peer is waiting for him, shows him his new office space, and introduces him to people on the way. As soon as Jason logs in to his computer, he notices that he has an email. It’s from the CEO, who talks about his vision and strategic goals. Throughout the day, people pass by to introduce themselves and welcome him. Jason’s peer grabs him for lunch with a group of other employees, thus creating a stronger sense of belonging.

Those moments, I assure you, will be remembered, because people’s memories are defined by unique moments—out-of-the-ordinary experiences—whether bad or good.

What good manager onboarding looks like
Effective manager onboarding has an undeniable influence on team behaviors and results. Managers are the face of the culture, and their leadership behaviors and actions must align with the organization’s culture. Culture is a potential competitive advantage, and new managers are more likely to succeed when they are well trained to adopt the leadership competencies needed to align to business goals and bottom-line results.

Just walk the hallways of MD Anderson Cancer Center and you will experience this firsthand. My colleague and I had the opportunity to spend some time with at least 30 new employees. We asked them about their secret to great service and their unwavering commitment to MD Anderson. It all came back to exceptional onboarding.

Imagine your manager shadowing you to ensure the brand is relatable with every patient encounter. At MD Anderson, a new manager is matched with a senior manager for two weeks to experience the culture and leadership expectations firsthand. This on-the-job training is no doubt one of the reasons why one can expect such a level of excellence in service at the company.

Most often we find organizations borrowing individual best practices from here and there. But what senior leaders, specifically talent management leaders, may miss is that success is about all the parts working together to create the desired results. While borrowing parts of a program from various sources may add some value, organizations will only realize the maximum potential of people programs when all the parts integrate to create a vital talent management system.

The costs of manager attrition
Onboarding managers is important for many reasons. For one, it can play a pivotal role in retention of top talent within an organization, with direct impact to the bottom line. The Center for American Progress summarized 30 case studies from 11 credible research papers on the costs of employee turnover and demonstrated that businesses with continuous hiring and attrition pay a steep price for their poor retention strategies.

Other studies predict that every time a business replaces a manager, it costs 12 to 18 months of the manager’s salary. As such, hiring a manager making $70,000 a year may mean $45,000 to $60,000 in recruiting and training costs for the organization.

Further, the Society for Human Resource Management predicts that the cost of replacing a professional or executive-level employee may be as much as twice her annual salary. That includes advertising for the open position, communication with potential candidates, interviewing, screening, hiring, management time, and training. Another hidden cost is lost productivity. On average, it may take 12 to 24 months for a new manager to reach a comfort level. In fact, one-third of executives miss expectations within the first two years.

These conversations are not taking place in the C-suite, and they should. Instead, training costs are considered a burden, a forced outcome of attrition in organizations. Healthy organizations that realize the cost of attrition invest about 35 percent of a manager’s salary on his development.

As telling as the numbers cited above are, they do not necessarily take into consideration the impact on team culture, team norms, and morale when losing a manager and onboarding a new one.

In my role as an organizational development leader, I have worked closely with frontline staff who reported anxiety, distress, and fear from the prospect of losing their manager and having to adapt to a new leadership style. The change can be taxing on employee engagement and productivity since new managers tend to shift direction and introduce new models of operation. Whether bringing on a new manager from the outside, or promoting a manager from within the organization, it is critical to invest the time and resources to develop them so they can set the right direction for the team, influence engagement, and promote the company’s values and culture.

What new managers want and need to succeed
Think back to your first day of work, or talk to someone who has recently joined a new organization or group, and most likely you’ll hear similar thoughts about what new employees want. Most people want to feel welcome and hope their onboarding experience is personalized to meet their needs. Make it about me, guide me through my workspace tools and applications, provide me with the guidance I need to succeed as a manager in my new position, help me get to know my key stakeholders, and create a clear map of leadership success behaviors.

Throughout the years, numerous people have shared with me their disappointing experiences with onboarding. Those moments are unforgettable. Megan reported staying in her office for three days prior to meeting an interested peer. David shared his disappointment in having no mentor to show him the basic management tools used in the organization. Michael laughed as he recounted how he had to rely on his team to access the company’s organizational chart and strategic goals. Cheryl expressed her discomfort as her vice president asked her to develop a strategic charter and present it at the management forum three days after her promotion to a new role. She was clueless about the strategy and the process to develop one. “I wanted to run and quit. I realized I made a big mistake,” she says. Today, Cheryl leads a large team, and it took her 18 months to feel comfortable in the role.

What is missing in all these stories? A well-designed onboarding process that takes into consideration new managers’ needs and specific measures of success at the operational, leadership, cultural, and organizational levels. How can talent development leaders make the company’s brand a focal point in the new manager experience? How can you bring into perspective a memorable experience? How can you influence the long-term retention of emerging managers?

The leader’s role in onboarding
Gallup research found that managers are accountable for 70 percent of employee engagement variance. A study of more than 7,200 U.S. adults concluded that half of employees leave their job to get away from their managers.

Most of us agree, then, that leaders—the new manager’s manager—have significant influence on retention, including during the onboarding experience. It starts with a clear communication of manager expectations. Building the relationship with a new manager is imperative to his success and his ability to acclimate to a new role with confidence and trust.

In addition to feeling valued and engaged, research suggests that creating the connection is vital to new managers leading their team in the right direction through succinct goals and action plans. And while all forms of communication are effective, Gallup reports that managers who promote transparency, clarity, and safe communication are the most successful at influencing the new manager experience. Influential leaders plan time to meet with their new employees, get to know them, and ultimately promote an environment of safety, trust, and open communication.

Building a genuine leader-manager relationship also will likely influence the new or promoted manager’s integration into the role, which ultimately influences her decision to stay. Unfortunately, this is not a common practice. According to Harvard Business Review, a survey of 588 executives at the vice president level and above found that less than one-third received any meaningful support during their onboarding process. Around 60 percent reported that it took them more than six months to have a full impact in their new roles. That certainly is a big miss in productivity.

Leaders should not underestimate the power of their role in onboarding new managers to a place of influence and integration. Leaders in general agree with research that reveals that when employees are happy, they are more likely to stay, more eager to influence the customer experience, and more likely to promote a healthy culture and exhibit collaborative behaviors. A new manager’s manager has the most significant influence on those outcomes.

Building an effective onboarding program for managers
In my 25 years of experience with onboarding programs, a memorable and effective program boils down to five key ingredients. It can be remembered easily with the acronym CAMPS:

Connect. Create a connection with the new or promoted manager prior to and throughout the first 90 days. This is one of those defining practices that brings relief to new managers because it alleviates the stress of knowing what to expect throughout the onboarding process.

Align. Select a mentor (I use the term buddy) to support the manager’s onboarding process. Ensure the buddy is vested in the right leadership behaviors. Train the buddy to provide support to the new manager and to help him acclimate to a new culture. Increase buddy awareness about different styles in the workplace, emotional intelligence, influence, and trust.

Manage. Schedule time to meet with the new manager on day one and plan to connect daily for optimal results. Share your vision, values, and expectations. Discuss pertinent challenges and design a personalized development plan. Hire an internal or external coach to support the new manager’s integration into the new role.

Plan. Plan weekly milestones with the new manager and buddy. Schedule meetings and shadowing moments with key stakeholders. Incorporate strategic discussions into the process. Assess progress using reliable technological solutions. Incorporate career development discussions early in the process.


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