Lifting Off

A manager’s guide to designing the best on-boarding experience for new team members

Lift Off by soldiersmediacenter on flickr

As a people manager, my most important job is to ensure the team is successful. I’m always striving to find ways to make our culture more inclusive in hopes of helping everyone succeed. One of the most interesting lessons I’ve learned is that success is defined differently for each person you hire, often in significant ways.

One common key to success has to do with experience of someone’s first day, weeks, and months as they ease into their new role on our team. I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned over the past few years building a team of excellent engineers, product managers, and designers at Blue Bottle Coffee.

Leading Up to the First Day

The hiring experience at Blue Bottle involves emails, phone screens, an onsite interview, and an offer. The on-boarding experience starts in the time between receiving a signed offer letter and someone’s first day. At this stage, their excitement should be spiking. To push that feeling even higher, we send a congratulatory card signed in ink by a few people on the team. This arrives in a stamped envelope, sent via the good, old-fashioned US Postal Service.

Almost as important, I work with our recruiting and HR teams to ensure that expectations for the new team member's first day are very clear. This is normally done through an email or phone call, with a followup calendar invite. In this email, we make sure to answer the following common questions:

  • What time and where should I be on my first day?
  • Who should I expect to meet there?
  • What will my first day be like?

Answering these questions helps lessen some of the anxieties about first-day logistics. It allows your new team member to focus on showing up as their best self, ready to engage in the work that attracted them to your team in the first place.

The First Day

At Blue Bottle, most new employees spend their first two days in New Employee Orientation. This multi-medium experience, facilitated by our People Development team, is designed to introduce people to the story, values, and self-development techniques that make our company unique.

Once orientation is over, their first day on the team will arrive. First impression clichés aside, this day is a big deal. It’s important to have their desk set up with all the basic equipment they’ll need to do their job. Introduce them to the people they sit closest to — it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a new person on the team and this can really break the ice. Let them know that you’re available to help if they need anything else and to feel free to ask any questions to you directly.

It’s important to have their desk set up with all the basic equipment they’ll need to do their job.

I make sure to set aside calendar time to meet my new team member in the morning and spend at least one distraction-free hour with them on their first day. There are always questions and I want to be there to answer them.

During our first in-person meeting, I have two primary goals. Most importantly I want to warmly welcome them to the team and reiterate how excited we are that they’ve decided to join. They should feel proud to be part of the team and ready to contribute insights, lend expertise, and be fully heard, from this day on. Additionally, this is an important opportunity to begin to communicate the values and goals of the company and the team. I use stories about the past and future to convey what we are trying to accomplish. Storytelling like this is impactful when done right and is instrumental in helping new people feel aligned and engaged for years to come.

The other important tool I use for positive results is what I call the Launch List. This is a customized document that outlines suggested to-do’s on someone’s first day, first week, and first month.

Here’s an example Launch List, anonymized for the internet. If you take nothing else away from this post, I hope you’ll start making these for your new teammates.

The final critical act of the first-day is food. The importance of sharing a meal together can not be understated. I make sure to schedule a team lunch, inviting up to eight teammates to join (more than this can feel overwhelming). We normally do this somewhere within walking distance, that can handle a large table, family-style. This has become an important tradition for our team, a sort of lifecycle celebration in the evolution of the group. The sharing of a meal has impactful social and emotional effects, beginning the process by which culture is shared, where the community of our team is re-shaped.

The First Week

I try to check-in with those on my team at least once a day in their first week. The goal here is to be supportive, not crushing. There will be a lot of questions, some they may be embarrassed to ask, but I want them to feel comfortable and inquisitive.

As part of their Launch List, I ask them to schedule two important meetings in their first week:

  1. Launch Conversation (1 hour)
  2. Team Overview (1 hour)

The Launch Conversation is my favorite shortcut to success. It’s a one-hour conversation with a very specific goal — get aligned. Based on the idea that engaged, happy employees are far more often motivated by internal rewards, rather than external ones, the launch conversation is a series of questions aimed at helping me understand what intrinsically motivates each individual on my team. Focusing on ensuring these intrinsic motivators are met is paramount.

…the “launch conversation” is a series of questions aimed at helping me understand what intrinsically motivates each individual on my team.

Most managers I’ve worked with in the past allow this alignment to happen organically, which often works out in the end. But having the Launch Conversation and working through a one-hour series of questions has helped the newer people joining my team skip months of assumptions, miscommunication, and uncertainty.

As part of the Launch Conversation, ask questions aimed at understanding what intrinsically motivates each individual on the team. For example, what kind of work is most exciting to them? Why did they join the team? What do they hope to achieve? The answers they provide will help you as a manager understand what makes your new team member tick.

Without context, the Launch Conversation can sometimes feel like another job interview. That’s why it’s important to set proper expectations for the discussion and be clear about your intention and purpose. Take detailed notes because you’ll want to refer back to these often over the next few years as you develop a strategy for their career development.

The second is far less complicated but still important. Take an hour to provide a Team Overview, one-on-one. This can be an informal conversation or can be more structured with a few presentation slides. It should provide context around what the team is responsible for, and how they can best contribute.

The First Few Months

You’ve gotten through the first week and your new team member is off to the races. The first few months will continue to be a time to ensure things get off to a great start. Some recommended things to do:

  • Follow-up on the to-do’s you recommended as part of the Launch List and make sure they get done. It can be uncomfortable setting up coffee with someone three levels up the organization ladder — help make introductions if necessary.
  • Begin to have regular 1:1’s. Each meeting should be partially free-form and partially agenda-driven. Provide context through storytelling for projects, work, and effort you ask from them.
  • Periodically refer back to your notes from the Launch Conversation. Use them as a guide for making sure the right opportunities are created for each individual. Always think about what kind of work keeps people engaged and let them focus on those areas with regularity.
  • Schedule a 90-day feedback session and gather some informal notes from the team. Let them know how they are perceived on the team, how they are succeeding, and where to focus their self-development.

Conclusion

I’ve shared these details in hopes of helping others design the best on-boarding experience they can. Learning about what motivates and engages each member of your team is critical to getting each of them excited and invested in building their career with you.

Designing these experiences is never done. It’s a constant evolution. I’d love to hear ways you ensure success for new members of your teams.