Why onboarding new hires is critical to the success of your startup
Thoughts on the struggle startup founders face while onboarding new hires and how to successfully avoid that
I have not always been great at retaining the new hires.
During my early days as an entrepreneur, I’ve burnt my hands bad while hiring and retaining employees. Really smart people who joined Plash after the most promising rounds of hiring and interviews just fumbled hard when with us. For a long time, I beat myself up for it on what and where I was going wrong.
and then one day the mindset changed when I suddenly found relevance and learning in a story I heard as a child.
“A man came across a Butterfly still inside her Cocoon. He picked the cocoon and carried it home. A day later a small opening appeared. The kind-hearted man thought of easing the struggle for the butterfly and letting her out by using a scissor to cut open a big-enough hole in the cocoon.
The butterfly emerged but its wings were still shriveled. Days passed by but the butterfly was weak and unable to fly with its shriveled wings. This butterfly spent its life unable to fly and crawling around.
The catch is — The kind-hearted man was naive to the fact that a butterfly struggling and trying to break out of its cocoon is actually nature’s way of forcing fluid into its wings and make them strong. This never happened with the Butterfly.”
Why I’m telling you this story?
Because as entrepreneurs and leaders, we often are in that man’s shoes when we are dealing with the Butterflies — the new hires who join our teams- the fresh pass outs, the new interns in our companies or just somebody new to the industry.
and like I already said, I fumbled with the new hires in my early days of starting Plash, my first venture before Alore CRM.
I could narrow my own failure at onboarding new hires well to three things:
1. Company Culture:
As a young founder, in the initial days I was always worried about “what will happen tomorrow”.
I would focus so much on revenue to survive the next day that I didn’t think much about company culture. and this is where my foundation weakened. Without a strong company culture and value set in place, the employees were probably feeling like directionless missiles. They weren’t bound to a unifying framework which is the soul of any successful business.
For e.g. If I had a robust company culture in place from Day 1, then while I focused on product, the culture I’d set and defined would have taken care of keeping our sales, marketing or admin teams motivated and aligned. It took me many months to understand this simple fact and I lost many brilliant new hires during this time.
2. Misaligned Expectations:
I always assumed that all the employee would be like me- motivated, passionate and ready to face the storm and dig deep. I have never worked in any other way; while as an officer in merchant navy or as a venture capitalist. I have always given my heart and soul to learn everything I can and contribute towards the company’s success. Working 2 hours a day or 20, I’d do all it took. It took me time to understand not everyone thinks similar.
At a startup, it’s not abnormal to always have a tight deadline. Which means you might just end up working consistently for 12–14 hour days, 6–7 days a week. I always assumed the new employee would have done his/her research and figured this fact out. But I was wrong. The same people, who during interview rounds showed dedication, passion and professed undying love for startup life, started missing deadlines. Worse this became a routine. Long lunch breaks and smoke breaks were totally taken for granted. I’d still be fine if goals would be met but, they weren’t.
Their expectations of life were not wrong. It was just that the stage of life in which our company was, as a founder of company, I had different expectation.
Long hours become a grind only when you don’t love the work you do. Of course, there is fatigue around the grueling schedules of product launches. However, this vanishes once overpowered with the rush of energy that springs up when a customer sees your product and says “wow”.
Startups are not about the sex-appeal. Startups are also not about bean-bags, swanky offices, moving in flip-flops and playing ping-pong. Startups are about creating a difference. They are about changing and disrupting an industry because you feel you have found a bottleneck that the existing monoliths have failed to work on. And if you want to compete against a monolith that has been around for 10, 20, 30 years, you need to move at break-neck speed.
What’s the easiest way to do that?
If everyone works for 8 hours, you work for 16 hours. If everyone works for 5 days a week, you work for 6 days. Within a month you will be 272 hours ahead or 34 days ahead of a person who is working 8 hours a day. Within a year you will be 1 year and 5 weeks ahead. Within a decade, you will almost a decade a quarter ahead. If you have 10 people in your company, within a decade, you will be a century ahead of another company of same size and who works 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.
Above that if you work smart, require less monitoring and can figure out stuff on your own, you make your team move even faster. Imagine that each employee saves an hour of time every day by spending less time on meetings, calls, discussions etc. This would mean you save another man year every year.
This doesn’t happen by magic. This happens because you have a mission and everyone in your team is aligned to the same mission. If your mission in life is to have a chilled 9 to 5 life, you need to be honest about it and find the right company where you would be able to achieve this.
Another notable change in my mindset came after I heard Reid Hoffman’s podcast episode titled “Let Fires Burn” — Here he spoke about how in the early-stages of startup life it’s impossible to have every stakeholder happy and all fires under control. It was a quasi-awakening for me to understand that I couldn’t be hand-holding new hires all the time. The moment I changed the status quo from hand-holding to allowing them to figure out stuff on their own, the new hires were rattled.
At our worst we’ve seen our office go down from 40 employees to 12 within a year. It was a conscious decision to save time, money and realign energies into going full throttle after the dream and vision for Alore CRM. Most of those who left rather understood the misalignment issues themselves and went on to roles which suited their expectations better.
However, the constant hiring, firing and exits took a toll on the pace of the product and the plans around. If not for that, I would’ve probably released my product Alore two months earlier than I did.
I stand wiser here and now trust technology and process to help ease the issue. I use behavioral assessment tests to ascertain if the candidate is aligned for the job. If found behaviorally aligned, we assign case studies for the respective function we’re hiring for. Thereafter if that works too, we invite the candidates for shadowing us for a week to see if they love what they would do.
It’s a longer process but so worth it. Ever since we started this process and hired people in this manner, our attrition rate is almost down to negligible.
3. Excessive Handholding:
As I established my startup, there were a lot of new hires who joined with just none — two years of experience and no deep exposure to Tech and SaaS. I have been a firm believer of hiring for the ability and promise and not the CV, so it was okay. And sure, the new employees knew their theory right but business is a totally different ballgame in practice.
and here steps in the real relevance of the Butterfly story from earlier.
When we founders bring in new hires- employees and associates who are just fresh out of college or totally new to the industry, we do so because we either have a budget constraint or we want to minimize the “learn unlearn relearn” wave.
Whatever be the case, many founders struggle heavily with the urge to minimize time in getting tasks completed. You hate the thought of having to explain stuff in detail or have the new hires figure it out for themselves. I’ve myself fought and failed with this plenty of times so I get the feeling totally.
You tend to evaluate “If I do this, it will take me two hours and If I let him figure it for himself, it will take six so let me just go to his seat and walk him through it” The result, you will have the new hire understand 10% while he watched you do the 90%. It will take 2–3 repetitions for the new hire to understand what he/she could’ve figured out in the first go if they had done it start to end.
Now hear me loud and clear.
You aren’t doing the new hire a favor by hand-holding through tasks. You need to have a process in place and thereafter let the new hires figure it out for themselves. If not, you’re only screwing around with the learning curve of this new mind that’s stepped into your realm and is yours to shape. The faster they learn and adapt to your company culture and pace of learning, the better.
By constant handholding you’re not allowing the new hire to feel positive stress and therefore the urge to push their learning boundaries.
You need to cater to the learning quotient of the new hires. Jennifer Carpenter, Former Global Head of Recruiting Accenture, summarizes the learning quotient best when she talks about a new employees’ ability to come into new situations, learn, and adapt. It’s basically being able to learn, unlearn, relearn — with a smile on your face.
That’s the kind of new hire you want around right?
I also want to take a moment to talk about how to retain smart new hires. These are some time-tested and proven solutions to ensure that the butterfly that emerges from the cocoon grows up to be beautiful and strong.
1. Have a proper plan for onboarding new hires:
When customers sign up for your business, you have a thorough and well thought of plan for them right? Because he will be paying you money?
Well, that’s the same for new hires as well. If you do not onboard them well, they would be like lost chickens in an animal farm.
Try to help new hires transition into their new roles and integrate into the cultural norms of your company. The first 3–6 months are critical for a new hire when they are most likely to leave. On average, companies lose 17% of their new hires during the first three months.(Source: SHRM.org)
Successful companies like Zappos have a 5-week course on understand the Zappos way of life and its values and culture. They want employees to be self-aware. Tony Hsieh, Founder of Zappos once famously commented — “I think if someone is self-aware, then they can always continue to grow. If they’re not self-aware, I think it’s harder for them to evolve or adapt beyond who they already are.”
I personally feel it’s a seventy-thirty game. Seventy percent of the onus to help a new hire immerse and adopt the company culture, values and learning curve depends on the managers and founders in a startup. Thirty percent, however, lies on the new hires. They must be willing to take an extra step to proactively seek information and familiarize themselves with their colleagues, teams, role, expectations and company culture.
A Harvard paper showed that feeling socially accepted was a key factor in newcomer success. It matters immensely more when you’re handling remote teams.
2. While onboarding new hires, get them to write their expectations and goals on paper:
This is something I encourage every person, irrespective of being a new hire or holding decades of experience to do. Even Research affirms this.
A psychology professor at Dominican University in California, conducted a research on 267 participants about goal setting. She found that you are 42 percent more likely to achieve your goals just by writing them down.
This works really well because when we write, we are forced to clear our minds onto the thought. There is not just clarity of thought but also of direction and steps involved. The milestones the new hires will set for themselves will help them know if they are on the right track and their right pace.
3. Constant Learning should be a part of your company culture:
You need to foster an environment of learning at work to ensure people think of constant learning like breathing- effortless. I try my best to encourage everybody to read as much as they can and have coding marathons for the geek minds. I encourage colleagues and new hires to take up certifications and be “Jack of all trades, master of many”. Our Java developers who joined in years back are today able full stack developers building world class software products. and again, this is not just me thinking loud but something backed by research. A Research found that 85% of candidates would happily up-skill in their own free time over the next six months to stay relevant at work. (LinkedIn). This means if you have this on your agenda, you get more people to stay because they are learning more than they would anywhere else.
4. Inclusiveness is not just a buzzword.
Feeling socially accepted is a key factor in newcomer success. The more welcome they feel the better they bond with their colleagues and team. As the new hires familiarize themselves and feel comfortable in your company’s culture they will feel the inherent urge to belong, learn and ask.
For us we have a partially remote team spread across six cities and three-time zones. It’s slightly harder to provide a sense of belonging to the remote teams but its completely possible. For e.g. we recently one of our Estonian developers had his birthday. All it took was ordering some Indian food for him as a surprise and we had something to talk beyond work. Moments like these helps create relationships among teams.
Also, remember that the biggest factor in a new hire feeling welcome is the direct manager he/she reports to. If you’re a small startup, chances are high the new hire reports to you and you’d know what to do. But when you have layers and hierarchy involved, real management begins.
To conclude I’d advise my fellow founders to understand onboarding new hires for what it is- Future value and a test of leadership. Struggles help develop strengths. If you just push new hires into the deep sea and expect they will be Olympic swimmers, that won’t happen. If you handhold them too much you’re only harming them (and eventually yourself). Strike the balance right here.
Without struggles, we never grow and never get stronger. Rising to the challenge is halfway to finishing it.
Originally published at blog.alore.io on June 28, 2018.