By Amy Gallo, HBR
 
There are many theories on how to correctly “onboard” someone to an organization or a team. Most focus on how to provide the new hire with the information and skills she needs to succeed. But that can only take her so far. She will need connections and an understanding of the inner workings and culture of your company to be truly successful. Whether she is transitioning from another part of the organization or is brand new, you can get her up to speed more quickly by going beyond the basics and explaining how things actually get done.
 
What the Experts Say
According to Michael Watkins, the Chairman of Genesis Advisers and author of The First 90 Days and Your Next Move, there are four domains that new hires need to master: business orientation, expectations alignment, political connection, and cultural adaptation. The last two are often the hardest for managers to convey, and yet the most critical for the new person to understand. Watkins’ research shows that lack of cultural adaptation is the most common reason newly-hired managers fail. “It’s also the hardest area for managers to provide good advice, in part because they are embedded in the culture and not necessarily reflective about it,” he says. Jon Katzenbach, Senior Partner of Booz & Company, author of The Wisdom of Teams, and co-author of the forthcoming Leading Outside the Lines, notes that “a lot of onboarding focuses on the formal side of the organization and is programmatic.” But helping new hires understand the informal side of the organization will accelerate their acclimation. Follow these three steps to get your new employee productive faster.
 
1. Start early Onboarding really begins with hiring. Start as early as possible in the process to expose your new hire to the organization’s or unit’s culture and to explain how work gets done. While selling your organization in the interview process is key to recruiting the right person, don’t risk his eventual success by not being upfront about how things truly work. “The starting point is to recognize that the best onboarding process can’t compensate for the sins of recruiting,” Watkins says. Be honest and don’t allow your vision of how you wish your company operated to confuse your communication of the reality of the situation.
 
Always recruit for cultural fit as well as skills and experience and identify transition risks, such as capability gaps or tenuous relationships, before the new hire starts. If he is transitioning from another part of the organization, don’t assume that he knows the culture. Companies, even small ones, often have different ways of doing things across units or functions.
 
2. Get them the right network
“The first thing a manager can do is ensure that the new hire understands how important the informal or ‘shadow’ organization is in getting things done,” Watkins says. It is your responsibility to explain this, but she will only truly experience it by meeting her colleagues. As soon as she starts — or even before — introduce her to the right people. “If the informal organization is really important, then the manager can accelerate the new hire’s political learning process by identifying key stakeholders and helping to establish connections,” Watkins says. Katzenbach suggests creating an “indoctrination inventory that includes meeting the people recognized as valuable resources for understanding how to make the organization work for you.”
 
You also need to be sure early in her new job she meets with “nodes” or “culture carriers” — people who others go to for different kinds of information and insight. These won’t necessarily be the people who have the highest rank or best title; instead they may be may be particularly connected middle managers or administrative assistants who decide when key meetings are held and who gets invited. “One simple way to do this is to identify ten people that the new hire really needs to know, explain to the new hire why they are important, and send messages to these stakeholders asking them to meet with the new hire,” Watkins says. If you don’t know who these people are, ask around or create a network map that helps you identify the “go to” people in your organization.
 
3. Get them working
This may seem like a no-brainer for bringing new people on board. Yet many companies start off new hires with a stack of reading and a series of trainings. Giving them real work immerses them in the way things function at the organization. This doesn’t mean you should let them “sink or swim”; definitely provide the support they need. Katzenbach recommends putting them on a real teamwhere they can work on a real business problem. “Get them in working mode rather than a training or student mode,” he says. Doing this instead of busy work exposes them to the company culture, introduces them to the ways things get done, and helps them to begin making the critical connections they need to productively contribute.
 
Principles to Remember

  Do:

  • Hire for cultural fit as much as for capabilities and skill
  • Introduce your new hire to “culture carriers” and “nodes”
  • Explain how work actually gets done at your organization

Don’t:

  • Let a new hire stay in “learning” mode for too long
  • Assume your new hire can’t be productive from the start
  • Rely on the org chart to help explain lines of communication