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How to make new employees productive quickly

May 24, 2010 Business Daily, Management

“There are many theories on how to correctly “onboard” someone to an organization or a team. Most focus on how to provide the new hire with the information and skills she needs to succeed. But that can only take her so far. She will need connections and an understanding of the inner workings and culture of your company to be truly successful. Whether she is transitioning from another part of the organization or is brand new, you can get her up to speed more quickly by going beyond the basics and explaining how things actually get done.”

AMY GALLO, HBR.org (15 April 2010)

Do we hire people in our organisations to see them succeed or fail? Silly question? Surely we recruit winners who are going to add value to our businesses and create success for the ecosystem around us?

Or do we? Decades of hanging around the corridors of businesses large and small lead me to question the real motives of recruitment. In our notorious parastatals, for example, I have seen employees brought in at the back of trucks at the behest of the politicians of the day. Even in more profit-minded organisations I see young employees placed at the mercy of grouchy and insecure gatekeepers who then make it their business to stifle and frustrate the neophytes.

It should be no surprise then that we do so little to induct and orientate newcomers. For there are many existing people in our organisations who view every newcomer with disdain and suspicion, and fear that these smart youngsters will someday take their jobs. As a result, it can take years to get any sort of return from our investment in young new talent.

Large multinationals usually have systematic orientation programmes, but even these are not without their flaws. I have been through some of those: usually you get a welcome speech from the boss, a bag full of reports and brochures, a session with Finance to set up your payroll process, and off you go.

As Amy Gallo pointed out recently in hbr.org, this is nowhere near enough. New people need to be inducted properly, not just by showing them the business, but by revealing how things actually get done. It is very important for newcomers to understand the culture and inner workings of the organisation very well if they are to make their contribution quickly. Otherwise they will be lost in a fog of uncertainty and simply freeze until they find their feet, sometimes months and years later.

There are indeed things you can do to make new hires productive quickly. For a start, be honest. We often fill the ears of new people with brand platitudes and PR fluff about how remarkable our company is. A good leader is a truthful leader: in addition to inspiring newcomers, he will also tell them the truth about how things actually work and how to get things done in the company, and give some insights on the inevitable politics of the place.

Secondly, in my experience a good manager will personally walk a greenhorn around the key departments of the company and demonstrate all the central processes. It is no use hiring brilliant graduates if you don’t equip them with the knowledge with which to procure essential supplies, fill timesheets, or even work the photocopiers.

Thirdly, get new people doing real work as quickly as possible. The best learning is on the job and in the throes of action. A prolonged apprenticeship is actually counter-productive. People feel like they belong when they contribute, so don’t delay their immersion in real work.

And lastly, don’t forget to socialise the new blood. Humans need to understand their social settings in order to function. Take your team, old and new, out for dinner, so that the social norms and mores are in the open.

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