Scaling-up your scale-up’s onboarding process

Scaling-up your scale-up’s onboarding process

Just like kids dream of growing up someday, many start-up leaders dream of “making it big” and scaling up to become a large and sustainable enterprise. But, just like those wide-eyed kids learn along the way, growing up – that is, scaling up – is hard. What makes it harder is that many scale-up leaders overlook (at worst) or underestimate (at best) one of the key determinants of their sustained growth: how to effectively onboard new employees.

Scale-ups onboard new employees at an exponential rate of growth. However, when you factor in the greatresignation and the war for talent, you then have the perfect storm that calls for a laser-like focus on new employee on-boarding as one of the most critical and strategically important scale-up processes. Yes, scale-up leaders have other concerns. Not the least of these being how to align operational capacity with growth expectations. However, scale-up leaders need to effectively on-board their new talent to accomplish this strategic alignment. Indeed, different from the start-up phase, scale-up leaders need to rely on their new talent to make critical strategic decisions to reach their KPIs. The (now) scale-up leader can’t do it alone anymore. 

As alluded to above, if a scale-up leader doesn’t get the “onboarding” right, many of their strategic growth goals will fall flat. No wonder that 63% of scale-ups report that talent management issues are their top concern. As an active world-class investor said about the state of scale-up leader readiness in Europe: “they are now super good at understanding and executing go-to-market strategies, managing cash, managing the product, but they are lacking skill in building great and scalable organizations." Part of “building a great and scalable organization” is getting scalable onboarding right.

Years of onboarding research tell us that building scalable organizations includes attracting, onboarding, and developing scalable talent – both leaders and front-line core talent. To attract and develop top talent, scale-up organizations need to have scalable onboarding practices. There are several key evidence-based practices to help you scale-up your onboarding practices.

To make scalable onboarding happen: Focus on what the new employee’s supervisor does, NOT what the organization does

We (myself and Bryant Thompson) followed 213 new employees in their first eight weeks of onboarding across 12 hyper-growth teleservices organizations. These teleservices organizations – given the growth in third-party customer success initiatives – were growing at more than 30% year-on-year in both revenue and headcount (not to mention a challenging turnover environment). For years, research assumed that organizational-wide orientation programs had the most direct impact on how the new employee adjusted to their new role. 

We found, however, that the new employee’s supervisor had a significantly larger impact on how much the new employee identified with their job and how much the new employee felt like they fit within the organization than any learning the new employee might have obtained during their orientation training and other organization-wide practices. Interestingly, a recent study found that when new employees in a tech organization met their supervisor and had their work station ready on “day one”, it promoted early and positive adjustment to the new job – indeed, these two practices were more important than any status resources provided during orientation training. In short, new employees will experience a strong fit with the job and the organization when the new employee’s supervisor takes the time (from day one) to provide job-focused advice, guidance, and role-modeling. As the new employees perceive they fit with the organization, they will be more likely to stay, be creative, and perform well.

So, what can scale-up leaders do to help the managers (who at times are new themselves) more effectively onboard new employees? Research would call for two simple evidence-based practices: 

Simple tip #1 : A little (managerial advice, guidance, and role-modeling) goes a long way….  

In the study, the secret to how the new employee’s supervisor might create this attachment and engagement during onboarding lies in the questions they asked the new employees about their supervisors. Example questions include: “My immediate supervisor sees advising or training newcomers as one of their main job responsibilities;” “I have received guidance from my immediate supervisor on how to do my job;” “I have access to my immediate supervisor.”  

Interestingly, the data show that immediate supervisors just need to (somewhat simply) shift their mindset from relying on the organization to on-board the new employee to “taking on that role” themselves. From my years working with new employees at organizations from Abbott Laboratories to Zilog, most new employees see a lot of symbolism in the supervisor taking (even if it just a little) time to focus on orienting and providing background on the new employee’s role. 

Simple tip #2 : Scale-up leaders coach the immediate supervisors to have an effective “day one” pitch

If the new employee’s supervisors are onboarding the new employee, who is onboarding the immediate supervisors and coaching them on how to onboard the new employee? As this question assumes, it’s likely that the immediate supervisor is just slightly less new than the new employee. Thus, the scale-up leadership team needs to also “roll up their sleeves” and actively participate in onboarding these new supervisors.  

Reporting in a Harvard Business Review (digital article), I analyzed the content of survey responses from 278 professionals on what they desired to learn about their new leader or supervisor in their “day one” conversation. I found I could categorize these direct reports into two major groups: (1) “warriors” and (2) “worriers. “Warriors” wanted to know about goals, competence, and how to move forward, whereas “worriers” wanted to know about pending changes, expectations, and how to integrate.    

While warriors and worriers have different expectations, a good leader will recognize her new employees will more than likely span across both groups – with some being a mix of the two. Thus, I recommend that the scale-up leaders socialize the new leaders (of new employees) to develop a “New Leader Pitch” for these “day one” conversations. A “new leader pitch” should “provide information on both competence and change, experience and expectations, and … overall leadership approach.”

In sum, scale-up leaders need to get the new employee onboarding process “right” to be able to align operational ability with their growth capacity. Instead of focusing on organizational-wide orientation programs, research suggests scale-up leaders might do better enlisting the new employee’s supervisors as the main on-boarding vehicles. Then, the scale-up leaders can, in turn, focus on helping these (also new) immediate supervisors to provide a motivating and grounded “new leader pitch.”  

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