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Driving Success via Onboarding

This article accompanies In Transition.

Thursday, September 2, 2010
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In our new book, Successful Onboarding: A Strategy to Unlock Hidden Value within Your Organization, we outline an approach for establishing a year-long new-hire onboarding program that enhances employee engagement, raises productivity, reduces new-hire attrition and can drive results that collectively have a positive impact on a company's bottom line.

To achieve these results, an onboarding program should teach cultural mastery, support interpersonal network development, offer early career support and provide strategy immersion and direction.

In addition to these content elements, for an onboarding program to be most effective, we argue it should be customized to new-hire segments, integrated with other organizational processes (e.g., performance management), and have a solid governance and administrative structure.

The following excerpt from the book shows how one company's approach to onboarding is driving retention and knowledge transfer among executive new hires at this model organization, while it demonstrates many of the program attributes we put forth in our book.

Onboarding Case Study: John Deere

Although we know of no single company that has adopted all the features of the ideal onboarding program, some innovative onboarding initiatives in recent years go a long way toward realizing the vision we have outlined thus far. One example is the program implemented for executive new hires at John Deere, the world's largest manufacturer of farm and forestry equipment and a major player in construction equipment as well.

For years, all John Deere hires went through a fairly standard online orientation process. Before they arrived, new hires received information on their work location, where to park, training to complete within their first year, and a map of the company's sites. They received roadmaps with year-long calendar of milestones, and they participated in a two-day orientation process featuring large-group informational meetings.

In 2007, HR implemented a new, enhanced onboarding program for executive hires. The company was concerned that the wave of baby-boomer retirements would leave the organization short of leaders. All that experience could not be replaced by new college grads, so the company would have to start hiring more mid-career people.

It is expensive to do searches to get these people, and Deere prided itself on low turnover of employees. So the company knew it would have to provide special support to these newcomers. Instead of simply making itself available when a VP called for help in getting a new manager up to speed, HR knew it would have to take the initiative.

The department wanted to design a "bulletproof" process to ensure that every new leader got the training and networking needed to be effective early on. At the same time, outside research into orientation they conducted showed that HR-only processes did not pack as much punch for employee engagement; managers needed to be involved, too.

John Deere wound up creating an executive onboarding process that addressed their concerns about retention. Every week, members of HR run reports to scope out all the senior-manager level job offers accepted. For each new hire, HR schedules a half-hour meeting with the hiring manager a few days before the start date. 

The meeting is especially important for managers who have not hired under the new approach, but everybody receives it. The HR manager informs the hiring manager about what their newcomer will go through, emphasizing the manager's responsibility to jumpstart the new hires' networking.

The HR manager has the hiring manager compile a customized list of stakeholders for the newcomer to meet: senior leaders, peers outside the division, direct reports, even outside suppliers and key customers. HR might suggest certain people to include, but the list must come from the manager; this is not just HR going through the org chart.

HR then encourages the manager to send a group email to all of these stakeholders, typically 20 to 30 people, asking them to set up a one-on-one meeting. To help move this process forward, HR even prepares a generic email that needs insertion of only a little detail about the person's background; but the manager is free to write what he or she likes. All the manager has to do is populate the group email with addresses (all of which are hidden to the recipient) and send it out.

This has typically been enough to get the networking going. Since the hiring manager is usually pretty senior in the organization, his or her requests carry weight. And in any case, most stakeholders are eager to do their own networking with this new leader in the company. HR has not had to push the process.

Another big part of executive onboarding is a series of 17 weekly, one-on-one, half-hour meetings on key topics. Sessions cover the John Deere's performance management process, while others cover finance and accounting and corporate citizenship. A complete list of the areas covered is noted in the following side bar.

A key objective of this part of John Deere's onboarding process is not only introducing the new hires to the functional leads but to help them understand how these functions support the new hire's business area. While it may not be information that the new hire immediately employs in their role, the new hire now knows who the point person is once a need arises.

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The new hire also begins an immersion program into company strategy through a finance session, and by virtue of what they learn from each of the functional leads.

HR keeps a list of people from throughout headquarters able to present on all of these topics, and they rotate assignments so the same person isn't on the hook for most of them.

As Mindy Moye, Ph.D., Manager Employee Engagement, found, the key to making all of this work is to avoid burdening anyone. Fortunately, she's gotten a lot of cooperation: "Directors and Managers want to connect with these new leaders as well. The original meeting schedule was a good deal shorter, but people from various areas actually approached me and said they wanted their areas to be on the list."

These training sessions run through four months, at the end of which the executive should be fully informed and have established his or her basic network. Additionally, because these individuals are the leaders of their respective functional areas -- vice presidents and directors, the new hire can quickly see the commitment John Deere has to his or her success and key relationships are formed early.

Other program elements include the company's regular performance management process. Hiring managers become involved with the newcomers pretty quickly in order for them to enter their goals into the system within the first 6-8 weeks of employment.

The company emphasizes measuring people according to the goals they've set, but coaching is also important, so HR strongly recommends that hiring managers help set up newcomers with a mentor. Sometimes, the global talent manager steps in to help make an appropriate match.

At the end of the four-month onboarding process, HR interviews every newcomer for feedback. Many of these managers have had experience joining two or more companies, and they are often quite impressed with the extent of John Deere's approach.

Hiring managers also seem to appreciate the effort; they say they wish the company had the process when they started. Besides the positive feedback, evidence suggests that attrition is declining. 

The internal response has been so positive that John Deere has started a slimmed-down version of the program for internal promotions into leadership positions. To date, this entails a shorter set of the sessions with a slightly different focus for the internal transitioning leaders.

The company has not set up the networking component, assuming that internal people already maintained pretty good networks.

This excerpt is from Successful Onboarding: A Strategy to Unlock Hidden Value within Your Organization, by Mark Stein & Lilith Christiansen, Kaiser Associates, Inc. Released by McGraw-Hill, July 2010.

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