Learning by doing: My first years as a manager in a tech start-up — Part II: Onboarding

Sophia Höfling
8 min readSep 1, 2019

“While organizations recognize the importance of onboarding, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are getting it right.” (Human Resource Executive)

Following my article on recruiting, with this article, I aim to convince start-up managers to devote sufficient time to designing and executing onboarding procedures. I will share my failures, learnings, and successes in the art of cultivating new team members. The insights I share are a reflection on my first 3 years in a management role at the high-tech start-up NavVis. In the highly dynamic environment of a fast-growing B2B start-up, I built and led a Customer Experience Team of up to 28 people. I hope my insights may help other team leader newbies to circumvent some rocks on the bumpy road of growing and leading a team.

Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash

If recruiting is the bread, onboarding is the butter to successfully build a team. It is a well-spent investment in the future of a functional team. It ensures that a new team member can work independently and productively early on. Nevertheless, the time to set up and execute a successful onboarding procedure is often underestimated by rookie managers. As a newbie, you often spend way more time on getting a new person in (setting up a job ad, reading resumes, interviewing, etc.) than bringing the new hire up to speed. As a result, onboarding procedures turn out to be uncoordinated and not fully thought-through. I recommend rethinking this time distribution. As a manager, you should aim for spending at least as much time on onboarding as on recruiting, both from a strategic as well as from an operational perspective.

As a manager, you should aim for spending at least as much time on onboarding as on recruiting, both from a strategic as well as from an operational perspective.

This advice comes from someone who had profoundly underestimated the effort of onboarding. With my very first hire, I didn’t even think about onboarding until two days before he started. This first onboarding experience was probably as unsatisfying for me as it was for him. What are the objectives for the first weeks? How often do we get together 1:1 to align? Where to find an overview of the running projects? I didn’t have the answers to these questions. I was greatly overwhelmed and at the same time disappointed. We had hired someone to take some workload from me. Instead, these first weeks simply felt like double the work. This experience taught me two important lessons :

1 — Don’t expect from any new joiner — no matter how experienced — to be fully productive in their first weeks. Those first weeks are there to learn and get fully immersed in their new role and environment. As a result, your team’s workload will first increase before it will be reduced. This approach will pay off in the long run. The more thoroughly your new hires understand your business the more likely it is that they will surprise you with own ideas that drive your company success.

2 — How quickly your workload will decrease strongly depends on how effective your onboarding procedures are. From my experience, the most effective onboarding takes place when:

  1. the new hire feels warmly welcomed
  2. a clear learning path is laid out for the newbie
  3. expectations are explicitly expressed by both sides

Based on these lessons my team and I iteratively built and improved our onboarding procedures over the following three years. It was complex but worthwhile. When I quit my job, my successor told us that he had never been onboarded in such a structured and welcoming manner. It seemed that we had done something right.

Our measures and recommendations on effective onboarding can be summarized as follows:

1 — To make a new hire feel warmly welcomed provide as much hand-holding and structured information as possible

Remember your first day in a new job or a new group of people, let’s say a sports team. The warmer you were welcomed by every single person and the easier it was to understand the structure and procedures of the group, the faster you could thrive. We implemented this mindset through three main onboarding tools:

  1. A welcome kit
    The first thing every new hire encountered when coming to the office on their first day was their welcome kit. It happily awaited every new joiner on their desk. The kit consisted of some company gadgets, a printed welcome guide (as described below), and a hand-picked book. For every new hire, we chose a suitable book depending on their specific role and their prior experience. This was our way to demonstrate and say “welcome on board — we believe in supportive onboarding and helping people grow”.
  2. An onboarding guide
    When do your team’s recurring meetings take place? How do you run a meeting on your team? What are your team norms? What are the different roles in your team? A comprehensive onboarding guide answers all these questions concisely. It is your new hires’ bible to make it through their first weeks without too many question marks. For you and your team, it’s an immense time saver that ensures that you do not have to explain the same things over and over again. Additionally, writing an onboarding guide is a great way to get started with internal documentation. It helped me to structure my thoughts and bring on paper all my team’s undocumented habits, processes, and values. Initially, our onboarding guide was a simple Word document. Later on, we turned it digital and it became the basis of our team documentation in Confluence.
  3. A buddy
    Team building is people business. As structured and complete your onboarding guide may be, it can never replace the emotional support a human may provide. Consequently, we assigned every new hire a buddy — a colleague with the same or a similar role who guided the newbie through their first weeks. The buddy organized a welcome lunch with the entire team and told all the stories you would not find black on white in the onboarding guide. He or she made sure that the newbie would get to know all relevant colleagues and scheduled deep dives into different topics with experts throughout the company. The buddy was the onboarding’s master of ceremony who ensured that we leveraged the company knowledge early on.
Our welcome kit including onboarding guide, book, and hoodie

2 — To lay out a clear learning path, consider your new hire’s career goals and provide a perspective to grow

Usually, career goals and job expectations are checked during the interview process. Yet, it’s worth checking in again as soon as a new team member has started. Find out if your newbie aims at becoming an expert or a manager. Investigate on their overall job expectations. Make your expectations transparent. Explain the company’s and your team’s feedback structure. If you have not yet defined explicit feedback and career development structures, just outline roughly “how things are done over here.” Thus, you make sure you manage expectations well, provide psychological safety, and help your newbies to strive towards their personal development goals.

With the first people I hired, I thought all this was crystal clear. At least, we had talked about it during the interview. Soon I realized that either I or the newbie had forgotten some details or that we had never made them as explicit during the interview as we would have during the onboarding process. Clarifying expectations and goals avoids misunderstandings and aligns you and your new report on a common mission.

3 — Set clear expectations and make conscious use of the probation period

In Germany, everyone is legally entitled to three months of probation period. These three months are considered the time for both sides to validate whether the cooperation works out or not. When onboarding my first new team members, I was still overwhelmed by my new role. As a result, I ignored this probation period. Relieved about every new warrior who joined our team, it didn’t even come to my mind that this was an exciting period for the newbie and an important time for me to validate if I had made the right hiring decision.

One day, one of our new joiners shyly asked me if she could get some feedback on her performance. It was three weeks before the end of her probation period. This was the day it dawned on me that having regular feedback meetings during the probation period is an essential means to provide psychological safety.

At a later point in time, I also realized that — if effective onboarding procedures are in place — three months suffice to evaluate if someone is indeed a good fit for their role or not. My experience showed that if you have strong doubts on someone’s team or role fit after three months, those doubts most likely won’t dissolve in the future. Hence, this evaluation should not be postponed. Deferring such a decision will cost you as well as your new hire unnecessary time and efforts.

To assure that we made the best use of the probation period, together with our people team I set up two check-in meetings with new joiners during their probation period. In these meetings, we provided them feedback, got their perspective on our onboarding process, and tried to understand if their expectations had been met. What I would like to try out in my next leadership role, is to celebrate the end of someone’s probation period. Thus, you can compliment your new team member on their first achievements and signal your team that you fully trust in your newbie’s judgment and skills.

To sum up, the time to create effective onboarding procedures should not be underestimated. Those procedures are a mirror of your company culture. Are they structured, creative, and welcoming? Or unclear, overwhelming, and impersonal? Take the effort and design them right. The more effective your onboarding, the faster your new hires will become a productive part of your team. Support tools like an onboarding guide and a buddy, career goal discussions, as well as regular feedback meetings during the new hire’s first months, are useful means to get most out of a new hire’s onboarding time.

Management categories

Read on if you are interested in people development! In the following article, I cover everything I learned about how to support your team with professional growth.

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Sophia Höfling

Entrepreneur & product leader writing about product & leadership. Building clean tech @ReiCat. Formerly CPO & co-founder @Saiga, HoP @Babbel & HoCX @NavVis.