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Successful Onboarding: The most important step to building your team

As Foundant’s Manager of Client Support, I onboard about a dozen new members of our Client Services team every year. As our clients know, service is something Foundant takes very seriously. No matter who picks up the phone when you call, the person on the other end of the line needs to be informed, involved, and engaged - ready to provide friendly expertise. Making sure every new person we hire meets the high bar we’ve set for Foundant is essential, and to do that we need an onboarding path with an equally high bar. Below I’ll describe some key pieces of Foundant’s onboarding process, and how you can take what we’ve learned to help bring people up to speed and fulfill your mission. 

One of the most impactful components of a team member’s successful onboarding comes days, months, or even years before the employee steps through your doors. It’s the processes your organization has built, the people you’ve already brought on, and the documentation you’ve established for what you do all day. Attentive onboarding won’t fix other systemic issues, but good onboarding can keep those issues from getting any worse. 

So, before you bring someone on, take a step back and make sure you have the resources and infrastructure to effectively do it. If you’re a tiny family foundation, you might think this is unrealistic. You might be thinking that if you’re doing any hiring, it’s because the nice grant manager you had for 30 years left, and you need to hire now because these grant letters aren’t going to write themselves. You simply don’t have time to build out an onboarding path! In that case, you’re probably right, but only settle for this path once. The best time to plan and prepare to onboard someone is when you don’t need to. Because unless you’ve got some vampires on staff, even the most dedicated employee won’t be at your organization forever.

The Set Up
Have their technology and desk ready to go. This may seem like a small thing you can figure out on the fly, but I can’t overstate its importance. From something as simple as their email account to the complicated software they might be using everyday, set everything up so when they arrive on their first day, technology is not a roadblock. They’ll have more than enough things to tackle on their first day like deciphering your company’s culture, figuring what they are actually supposed to do all day for the foreseeable future, and--in Foundant’s case, at least--learning the names of everyone’s dog. (Luckily, there’s a handy place to find them:

The Art of the Checklist
When I first started onboarding new people to our Client Services team, I ditched the checklist. I wanted to do things differently and thought the idea of a checklist was archaic and old-fashioned. I was wrong and I learned that quickly. A checklist, or two in my case, has become an essential tool because it allows for a degree of self driven onboarding, which is important if the new team member is going to develop a sense of ownership over their own training and development . . . not to mention helping me scale to bringing on a dozen new people every year! 

As I mentioned, I use two checklists. The first is something I’ve creatively dubbed the “First Day Checklist” and, as you can no doubt imagine, is given to the new team member when they walk in the door. It’s a printed list--because as much as I encourage my clients to go paperless, checking a box with a pencil just feels so much better--and contains everything they should be able to knock out in their first day at the office. These are simple, easy to follow things like getting logged in to everything, going through some training materials, and setting up meetings with key people. By giving them a checklist they can actually complete, you give them a sense of progression and accomplishment right from the beginning. Typically, and by design, the person will finish this checklist before the end of the day and I send them home to relax their overstimulated brain to be ready and fresh the next day. 

After completion of the First Day checklist, they then get the “Everything Else” checklist which contains a much longer list of what they’ll be learning over the next month or so up to the point where they’re “fully” trained. This checklist is their best friend for that time period, and it should include things like shadowing others and what questions to ask while doing so, completing tasks for the first time, and learning random bits of relevant knowledge. Almost every time I onboard someone I find something new to add to the checklist for next time, even if it’s as simple as, “ask someone where the best lunch places are around here.” Never let it get stale--take a look at it before every new hire to make sure it’s up to date. 

The Training Materials
The checklist isn’t effective if they don’t have materials to study and absorb. It’s important for the initial pass of training, but it is most effective as a resource for them to refer back to as they maneuver through your onboarding process. And you don’t need a fancy onboarding software to prepare and present these materials -- Google Drive and a few folders and documents is a great place to start. 

And then start documenting. What does a new employee need to know about the software you use? About their email? What about your policies and maybe even a glossary? Break down the tasks the new employee will be doing into bite sized, step by step pieces. Include screenshots (the Snipping Tool that’s probably already installed on your computer is a great way to do that). Or, in certain cases, even quick videos can be helpful (I’m in love with a quick-and free video-software called Loom). Don’t spend a ton of time polishing these materials--make them direct, effective, and easy to update. The first time a new employee reads through these, it will be such an information firehouse that they’ll find their mind drenched--make sure they know how to access the materials so they can reread any pieces that slipped through. 

The First Day
Much of what they say about first impressions of people is also true of organizations. While you may have presented a great face during the interview, the importance of what a new employee experiences during their first day on the job can’t be overstated. Leading them to their desk, tossing them the employee handbook, and bidding them adieu is not the way to engage new team members with their training and with your mission, no matter how busy you think you are. 

Schedule time on your calendar. I block the entire morning off whenever I have a new person starting. Before I show them where they’ll be working, show them how to log into their computer, or teach them how to navigate the communal coffee machine, we jump in a conference room. Starting a new job can be nerve wracking. Easing them into it and building the initial relationship is key. We talk about how weekend was and basic expectations of the role, as well as answer any burning questions they have. Then it’s about setting the stage for their onboarding process. A good onboarding process starts with an overview of how the whole process will go down, what they should focus on, who to go to as a resource, etc. 

Then, at the end of this first meeting, it’s time for some whiteboarding. I found when I first began on-boarding new employees I didn’t realize how much information about Foundant, our clients, and the philanthropic sector I had just inherently absorbed over my years working here. “Oh, if they read the website, they totally understand what Foundant does,” I thought. That’s never the case for someone starting off, so give them a foundation to build from during the rest of their onboarding. 

Take out the dry erase marker and start talking and drawing them through your organization, your mission, and your constituents at a high level. Explain to them some of the history of your organization, and how their role fits into the bigger vision of what you’re accomplishing. Let them ask questions and use them to flesh out your scribbles. By the time they leave the room to get the boring stuff, you’ll have given them enough direction to ensure they are putting their training in the context of the entire organization. 

Give Them Something Useful To Do
Often, new employees will feel like a drag on others at the organization because they worry they aren’t pulling their weight. To alleviate this, instead of having the people in “training, training, training” mode for the first few days or weeks of their onboarding, find small tasks they might actually be working on that you can quickly explain and have them complete between working on building knowledge and training.     

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Don’t Underestimate Engagement
In order to find their place in your organization, a new person needs to make real connections with others who work there, those you serve, and their manager (or perhaps their Board). Dedicate time in their onboarding to introduce them to others at the organization, whether that’s board members, volunteers, or other employees. If you’re managing them, make sure you’re available in those first few days and weeks. It’s much easier to build trust and respect out of the gate than trying to play catch up later. 

A Culture of Questioning 
Of everything I’ve described so far, this is the most important. Even if you document every workflow, put everything you can think of on the checklist, and create the greatest onboarding program of all time, if you haven’t cultivated a culture of questioning at your organization, you will fail every new employee who walks through your doors. 

Cultivating Culture, One Meeting at a TimeThe most obvious piece here is organizational attitude--when a new person asks you a question on something you think they should know, how do you respond? If this is hard for you--try mentally “owning” more of the new person’s training. If they’re asking the same question twice, ask yourself why. Did you not explain it well enough the first time? Is the task they’re working on too obtuse? Do you need more documentation? And this isn’t just something you should be doing on your own, you should encourage this behavior across your entire organization. The secret to effective onboarding is to make sure the new person feels comfortable asking literally anyone in your organization any question without rebuke. If they don’t know it, they should point them toward the person who does. 

The second piece of building a Questioning Culture is availability. You could be the most gracious question answerer in the world, but if you don’t have time to answer their questions, it doesn’t help them much. You can take that idea and scale it to the rest of your organization. Who knows the information your new employee needs to successfully onboard? Are they easily accessible? 

Last, cultivate this concept of asking good questions in your new employee by adding examples in your checklist. Instead of a checkbox telling them information, give them a target to go seek out the information, perhaps even providing the question they should ask. It shows that not only are you happy to answer their questions, it shows them an example of a good question to ask and it gets them out in the organization asking those questions and (hopefully) developing relationships with others. 

Taking the time to set up an onboarding plan and path for your new employees will take some time and focus away from immediate progress on your mission in the short term, but in return you’ll find the new people you add to your organization will be happier, more skilled, and stick around longer. 

About the Author

Jacob Sharp is Foundant Technologies’ Support Delivery Manager – spending his days coaching and enabling our Client Services Support team so they can more effectively make our clients successful. With a knack for solving complicated problems for funders at various levels, it’s his goal to ensure powerful solutions for those using our grants management software. Often known as the “reporting guru” around the office, supporting members of the philanthropic community through technology has developed into a passion during his time at Foundant. Jacob spends his free time writing, reading, and escaping into the mountains around Bozeman, MT.

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