• Jon Mechan

How to Onboard Successfully

Onboarding yourself into a new role can be a scary time. It's like being the new kid at school, and you don't know where the toilets are, let alone who are the cool kids and who are the bullies to avoid.


It helps to have a framework in mind. This article shares what I have learned from my own experiences and from working with CIOs and CTOs, other tech leaders, all the way through to staff members starting a new role. A lot of what I discuss below comes from a tech perspective, but can be easily adjusted to fit to many different kinds of job. Huge thanks to Benjamin Lichtenwalner for the outline framework this is based on.


I would highly encourage you to adapt this based on the role, company and circumstances, to focus on the priorities for your particular situation.

 

It can be helpful to think in terms of a 90 day period, in three 30 day chunks, in the context of People, Products, and Processes. Think of these as the who, the what, and the how of the business.


Be prepared to adjust the timeline if necessary - things may come up that are going to impact whether this is a 90 day process or a little longer. Just make sure you communicate any changes to your team and stakeholders.

 

People


As you've probably sensed from many of my articles, the people-centric side of things is where technical leaders are frequently weakest, and where we should be focusing the majority of our time and effort. The human element of leadership is absolutely key and should be your number one priority.


With that said, identify who the key people are that you'll need to start working with. These will be your team, executive stakeholders (if it's a leadership role), your internal and external customers, vendors and partners, etc..


Products


I'm using the term 'product' loosely here - every team has some sort of product that it works on - whether it's providing infrastructure support to the business, applications, services, marketing materials, financial reports, etc.. Depending on the role and the company, these will vary greatly.


Processes


Every organization has processes - again depending on the level of the role, these may include budgeting, project and portfolio management, development, prioritization, performance and staff management, etc..


Over the first 90 days, the weighting you should give to these areas varies - the first 30 focuses more on people, the second on products, and the third on processes. Not to say that you shouldn't be learning about all three the whole time, just that the emphasis should vary.



Before the first 90 days


Use the interview process to start to get an overview of what you're getting yourself into. Try to get a read on the organizational dynamics and what the expectations are for you and the role.


Do your best to get clear mental separation between your old role and this new one. Bring forward your learning and experience and leave as much baggage behind as possible.


First 30 days


  • Spend the majority of your time getting to know your key stakeholders and your team. Identify who you need to know, what their pain points are, and listen, listen, listen. Be a sponge. There's only one opportunity to create a first impression, so prepare for these meetings well. Start building a working coalition with your immediate boss, understand their expectations and how you will be measured, and enlist their support for any early actions.

  • Get a high level overview of the product landscape and of any current risks - find out what's mission critical and if there's anything that needs immediate attention. Identify and address any quick wins.

  • Understand the broad process environment, for senior roles this will often involve getting good visibility of the budget and project situation


In this period keep your eye out for any low-hanging fruit - any problems that can be rapidly addressed that will help build your credibility and build trust with stakeholders.


Start to build your support structures, in all three areas. Having a strong advice and support network will be invaluable not only during the transition, but going forward too. Make sure you're creating space in your calendar for planning, thinking, and reflection time. Work with a coach to get an external perspective, unbiased feedback, and to consolidate your learning (yes, I know I'm biased on this subject).


Second 30 days


  • Meet any remaining staff that you didn't manage to get in front of during the first 30 days. Get to know your key lieutenants more closely and start to build a picture of their motivations and drivers.

  • Dive deeper into products - particularly which parts align with which divisions of the business.

  • Go down a layer on process - get visibility on how budget tracking and reporting is managed, and how projects are started and killed.


The middle 30 is all about going a bit deeper. The first 30 will have surfaced some areas that you're going to want to understand in more detail - this is your chance to dive in a bit further. Also by this point you should be building up a better understanding of how things work at the company, which will open up more areas to explore.


Last 30 days


  • Get your recurring syncs set up. You should have 1:1s with your directs scheduled on a regular basis, along with your immediate boss, and other key stakeholders. You will also want both tactical and strategic team meetings in the calendar. Consider your longer term communication plans - will you do town halls with your team, newsletters, or similar. Make contact with any key vendors / partners that you've yet to reach. Assess whether the current organizational design is fit for purpose or whether you'll need to make any changes.

  • On the product side, consider what performance management and KPIs you have in place (or would like to implement) to set yourself up for the future. Dig into capacity management, if relevant for your situation.

  • Look at KPIs for processes too - make sure you have good visibility of how things are going.


By the end of this period you should have a good idea of what actions you want to take, an early outline of your longer term strategy, and of any issues that need addressing, which you can validate with your stakeholders and team, prior to getting stuck in.


Next steps


As you start to build a longer term vision and roadmap, validate it with your stakeholders and adjust course as necessary. Build consensus with your teams and prepare the relevant communications.


Hopefully by this point you have a clearer idea of the challenges you, your team, and the business are facing, and you feel more confident in stepping up to address them. Good luck!



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