Onboarding Beyond Zoom
2020 was a kick to the head. According to COVID 19 and The World at Work, published by the International Labour Organization (ILO), “In 2020, 8.8 percent of global working hours were lost relative to the fourth quarter of 2019, equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs.”
I was one of those statistics. In June 2020, my corporate security department was shuttered, and I lost my job as the CSO. The subsequent job search and onboarding process was largely virtual, which presented new challenges and opportunities for an incoming CSO.
Although the ILO report projects that robust recoveries will occur throughout many industries in the second half of 2021, there remains great uncertainty, and in the interim, millions will be in transition. This means greater numbers of people are now competing for fewer jobs and many will be asked to do even more with less—not only joining new departments within organizations, but in some instances tasked with leading teams with fewer resources.
percent of firms are opting for a hybrid approach where some employees work from home.
According to a May 2021 article in the Harvard Business Review, 70 percent of firms are opting for a hybrid approach where some employees work from home, others work in the office, and some split their working hours between home and the office.
Whatever model is adopted, one thing seems consistent: At least part of the workforce will be working remotely in the coming years, and that comes with unique challenges from interviews to onboarding and onward.
Finding the Break-Even Point
During a casual chat with an HR leader at a former company, I once asked what the expectation timeline was for new hires. The HR leader said that, in general, the first year for most is a time of learning about the company culture and processes. Expectations during this time were very low. This is a net deficit for the company, in which the employee is taking more value than they’re producing.
According to the HR leader, a new employee at this company was expected to provide as much value as they are taking at around the six-month benchmark. This is known as the break-even point, and it varies depending upon the expectations of the organization, the job, and industry.
Regardless, this timeframe can be accelerated with effective onboarding strategies, enabling the employee to add value to the organization much faster and securing one’s status within it, according to an article from the MIT Sloan Management Review, “Getting New Hires Up to Speed Quickly.”
The Essential Onboarding Interview Question
Before landing the job, there’s usually a question for leaders—particularly toward the end of the interview process—that is something akin to: “How would you spend your first few months on the job?” It’s a brilliant query that can provide insight into a candidate’s prior research on the company and the job, as well as his or her ability to think tactically, operationally, strategically, and perhaps even politically. It can provide insight into the candidate’s leadership style, prior experience with transitions, and perhaps most importantly, whether a candidate would fit into the company’s culture.
Answering this question sufficiently is critical, so it’s important to prepare for it by first researching the company and the role. This should have started before the initial screening interview and developed during the interview process.
If you have a corporate security background, you should have fundamental investigative skills, so approach every interview as a case. What do you know about the incumbent or previous person in this position? Are there any burning platforms—emergencies requiring immediate attention? Why does the organization need to fill this role? What do current and past employees say about the company’s culture? What did the organization’s last 10-K report say about the company’s financial status?
It’s also a great time for self-reflection. What has worked well for you in the past and what hasn’t during similar transitions? Is there anything you wish you had done differently if you had the opportunity? Not only might you be starting a new job, but others might be leaving—how could this affect your onboarding experience? Most importantly, what do you think you can do to establish credibility and trust as quickly as possible?
Perhaps an appropriate preamble response to this interview question could be something like: “What we’re talking about is onboarding, and research has shown that an effective onboarding program can get someone to the break-even point—where one is providing as much value as they’re taking much faster with an effective onboarding program. Overall, it’s about establishing credibility and trust as quickly as possible, and in order to do that, based on my research into this role and the company, I think I would _____.”
It might be easiest to lay out goals at the 30-, 60-, and 90-day timeframes. Be specific enough to connote the research you conducted and insight you developed, but general enough to project your leadership style and personality. Keeping current pandemic travel and work restrictions in mind, be realistic with your timeframes. Also, your responses may be less about what you know and more about whether you would be a good fit.
At the close of the interview, ask the interviewer if your onboarding response seemed reasonable. Though the interviewer may not provide confirmation, you may gain some insight as to whether or not you answered adequately, thereby further preparing you for a similar question during the next round of interviews.
Your First 90 Days
Congratulations, you got the job! Pre-pandemic, the first 30 days would normally be a time of intensive one-on-one meetings, site visits, and training sessions to learn about the business, identify and engage with stakeholders, align expectations, and adapt to the culture.
Now, however, this is likely to take place virtually, which can seem daunting, given that offices may be closed and travel is severely restricted. The good news: most companies have adjusted their expectations to allow for more time to hit the break-even point and since travel is so limited, more people should be available for virtual meetings.
As a result of the interview process, you should have identified some reasonable goals for your first 30-, 60-, and 90-day timeframes, and your new company may also have provided general expectations.
Perhaps for the first 30 days, the goal is to simply understand your company’s fundamental administrative systems, establish rapport with your team, supervisor, and department, and identify some quick wins and any burning platforms. Maybe by day 60, you should have met with all critical stakeholders, completed visits to core production sites (if permitted), diagnosed your situation, and identified resources needed to complete some quick wins. By day 90, perhaps you could be tackling some quick wins or generating a deliverable to demonstrate your expertise and motivation, contributing to the enterprise.
During the first 45 days at my current company, I had 39 onboarding calls with everyone from administrative assistants to regional presidents. This was very different from the past, when I likely would have spent the majority of my time in the field to gain an understanding of the current state of the organization—but like many other things, this was changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This time, upon being hired, I started scheduling 30-minute calls or virtual meet-and-greets with as many people as possible. From the interview process, you should have identified stakeholders who will be critical for your success. Ask your supervisor to help you identify others he or she thinks would be helpful.
First, speak with your direct reports and then work your way up the chain of command within departments, such as legal, HR, risk management, sales, procurement, logistics, and any others critical to your department. Include administrative assistants—they are the gatekeepers to senior management and can be among your most trusted sources of insight. Also, try to identify the “company historians”—those who have been around for a long time and know what works, what doesn’t, and can provide insight as to why. Consider including external stakeholders such as suppliers, customers, analysts, and distributors.
Administrative assistants are the gatekeepers to senior management and can be among your most trusted sources of insight.
With each interview, you will learn more and become more polished, applying what you learned in each successive call. Save calls with senior leaders for last, by which time you should be highly educated about the company, will have your talking points polished, and can avoid potential landmine discussions that could cause friction.
Your calls should be short and keep the first few minutes very informal, which—as in the conduct of an investigative interview—is important for establishing rapport. Resist the urge to talk too much, especially about yourself. Remember, this is an opportunity for you to learn about them, the company, and the culture, as well as a chance to leave a favorable impression of yourself. After essential rapport-building, you will have only about 20 minutes, but if you ask the right questions, you can mine quite a bit of information.
In his book The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, author Michael Watkins suggests several questions to ask during onboarding calls. Among them, I suggest the following three, at minimum:
- What are the biggest challenges your department is facing (or is likely to face) in the near future?
- What are the most promising unexploited opportunities for growth?
- If you were me, what would you focus on for the next 90-120 days?
You’re essentially asking the same question in three different ways, or triangulating, as is often taught in interviewing courses. Reactions to these questions will vary, but responses should be relatively consistent.
Frontline workers may be frank and eager to provide specific, tactical answers; after all, they are often closest to the action. Responses from senior management may be additionally insightful and strategic given their vantage point. Regardless, responses to these questions will help identify the situation into which you walked.
Keep your calls short and be efficient with your time. Something to remember, especially in a virtual format, is that Zoom fatigue and COVID burnout, although relatively new terms, are all too real. Don’t be boring!
As a result of these calls, you should be identifying any immediate needs, areas for improvement, and some quick wins needed to establish trust so critical for your success. By documenting these responses, you now have data to back your plans. Further, you will, hopefully, leave the interviewers with a favorable impression of you—you made the most of your time with them and expressed a genuine interest in the company and your position within it, thereby increasing your credibility and influence.
The comments and views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and may not reflect those of his employer.
Erik Antons, CPP, PSP, is the chief security officer of Whirlpool Corporation where he is charged with safeguarding 81,000 employees and numerous assets across more than 170 countries. He was previously chief security officer of Hyatt Hotels Corporation, manager of international security with Sempra Energy, and a special agent with the Diplomatic Security Service at the U.S. Department of State.