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3 Tips to Optimize Onboarding at Startups

Picture this: You just made a hire for your team. YES! You found your new employee. Now, they can begin contributing to the company and taking work off your plate.


I’ve heard this attitude from hiring managers throughout my career. There’s palpable relief when a candidate signs an offer letter. I’m all for celebrating wins, but with hiring, the win is not “over” when the candidate signs the offer letter. Nope, now we need to think about their onboarding.


Onboarding is how a new employee is welcomed into the company and set up so they can do their role. It includes everything from the administrative (systems access and equipment) to the training (how do we work here). The most important aspect of onboarding is solidifying the abstract (what does it mean to be successful here).


The goal of the onboarding process is to have a new employee initiated into the company as quickly and as thoughtfully as possible. A wonderful onboarding process is welcoming and empathetic, and (most importantly!) it allows the new employee to succeed in their role. Onboarding is like training wheels on a bike - there’s support to start but the ultimate goal is to move beyond it.



Sounds great, right? So why do so many startups struggle with onboarding?


The first reason is obvious - it takes time to design a wonderful onboarding experience. And time is the scarcest resource at startups. The reality is that new hires actually reduce value before they add value. Think about it: someone new joins, and people have to take time out of their day to share information, train, and just generally be available to this new person. The new hire is “detracting value” - taking people away from business critical activities.


It’s short-sighted to view time invested in onboarding as a value detractor. We’ve got to view this time as a worthy investment that we will see a return on. By investing in a new employee’s experience and arming them with the information and resources they need to succeed, you are able to unlock their value and make them contributors to the company sooner.


This requires a mindset shift. We’ve got to get comfortable with the idea that we will invest upfront time and redirect business resources in the short-term when someone joins. We’re in it for the long-term. We’re banking on the payoff - that the new employee will contribute sooner and more effectively since we armed them with what they need to succeed.


There’s another less-talked about benefit here. Put yourself in a new employee’s shoes. How do you feel when you start a new job? Whenever I start a new opportunity, I am hell bent on doing amazing. I am eager to prove how right the team was in hiring me. I want to be successful and show value. I’m enthusiastic about doing whatever is asked of me. When an organization focuses on how to make it simple for a new employee to contribute, they tap into that employee’s most eager work ethic. The employee is at the peak of their desire to contribute. To find ways to leverage that peak enthusiasm and direct that fire toward the company’s goals - that’s magic.


Clearly solid onboarding can be valuable. That being said, you still face the time challenge. How can you create a solid onboarding with limited time?


Here’s my top three startup friendly tips for building your onboarding program when you’re short on time:


  • Find your “onboarding conductor” - There needs to be someone in your organization who is the conductor of the onboarding orchestra. They’re going to be responsible for making sure all the necessary onboarding steps get done. They’re your “conductor.” They understand the piece of music intimately, and they are well-versed in cuing people to do their parts. This is the person who “owns” the list of all the various onboarding tasks that must get done (everything from “order the new hire a computer” to “announce the new hire to the company”). This person is not responsible for doing all of these tasks (the conductor doesn’t play all the instruments). But they are responsible for making sure that everyone else gets these tasks done (the conductor does ensure the music is played in the correct way). A few tips:

    • Automate wherever possible! There are plenty of HR softwares out there that can help you automate. Still super small/lean? Get the free version of asana or even create a template google sheet. Work smarter, not harder.

    • Share the WHY. Don’t forget to remind people why you’re asking them to do these tasks when you send out that onboarding task list. People get busy in startups – but when we center our team around why it matters (to make a new hire welcome! To set someone up for success!), we get buy-in.

    • Keep iterating! You’ll learn things along the way about what you need/don’t need and about what can be done more efficiently. Iterating is part of the onboarding process - keep at it!


  • Spell out success: 30/60/90 Day Goals - If you do one thing with onboarding, do this! Whenever someone new starts, their manager should complete a 30/60/90 day goal template. This document spells out the success criteria for the first 30 days, 60 days, and 90 days on the job. When you create a goal document, you solidify the abstract. From the get-go, we’re giving the new hire a roadmap of what they need to do to be successful. We are defining success criteria. We are taking something that can feel so emotional and worrisome to a new employee (“how will I contribute? What do I need to do?”) and making it concrete and clear. By creating this doc, you create two major benefits:

    • Remember how we talked about unlocking that magical motivation that exists when someone joins and wants to succeed? You’ve just tangibly listed out what the new employee can do to prove themselves. Now, your new hire can work to achieve their goals.

    • You get a clear way to assess if this new hire is succeeding or not. Are they hitting the 30/60/90 day goals? You’ve defined what success looks like, and now you can measure if they are successful or not. This allows you to provide quick feedback to the new hire about how you need them to adjust.


  • Invest time (especially that first week) - Embrace the reality: your new hire will take up your time when they join. They’ll have questions. They’ll need guidance. You’ll need to give them a warm welcome. You’ll want to get to know them. This is a valuable use of your time, and it requires you to adjust your expectations for yourself. De-prioritize your other to-dos wherever possible. Block your calendar aggressively to make time for your new hire. Find time to give them a sense of social inclusion (take them to lunch, or (if distributed) schedule a digital happy hour). Make your #1 goal for their first week to set the new hire up for success. Believe me - while it takes time away from your goals in the short-term, in the long-term you’re creating a powerful force - a whole other person who can achieve goals. Reframe your mindset for the long term. Invest time in onboarding – it will pay off.


If you find your onboarding “conductor”, create 30/60/90 day goals for all new hires, and commit to investing your time, your onboarding will be heads and shoulders above many companies. That said, these three items are the tip of the iceberg - there’s plenty more you can do to optimize onboarding.


Want to talk further about onboarding? Contact Reservoir HR so you can start working smarter, not harder, with your HR.


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