FounderFuel: How to not lose new startup talent with effective onboarding

We put so much effort into hiring the right people when scaling our teams: The CV sifting, the interviews, assessing cultural-fit, not to mention the responsibility of trying to make the right decision, win them over and not lose the best candidates along the way. It’s time consuming and emotional, so it’s hardly surprising that when the contract gets signed, there’s a huge sigh of relief, and we try to get back to the day job until they join!

Sometimes though this can leave us on the back foot with onboarding – I can certainly think of times when I’ve felt a little less-than prepared for a new joiner on their first day! Those first days creep up on you, and it’s tough to find time to design the perfect landing for your new talent. Plus, in a startup culture everyone just gets stuck in, so it’s easy to justify prioritising other things, and just letting the newbie do the same.

Unfortunately, the stats tell us we should all be a little more conscious at making those first impressions count. Glassdoor research shows that great employee onboarding can improve retention by 82%, and given the average cost of employee turnover is £30k, there’s a sound business case for prioritising onboarding as part of winning the talent war.

The topic has come up a lot with our founders recently, so as ever, we’ve been crowdsourcing ideas and hearing what works from those in our #FounderFamily. What’s clear is that spending conscious time planning the best landing makes a huge difference to the new starter AND the business, so this simple guide is here to get you started.

The why
  • Retention: Positive first experiences result in greater loyalty and staying longer
  • Motivation: Capture that new-job energy from day one and use it to your advantage
  • Performance: Clear direction on expectations leads to productivity without overwhelm
  • Culture: If you value your people, then show it from day one and make people feel valued

We’ve all had a first day: There’s lots of unknowns and frankly it’s a bit scary – you don’t even know where the loos are, let alone your desk. Effective onboarding takes away the fears, replaces them with memorable experiences, and as the stats show, ultimately leaves a lasting impression that builds teams that want to stay together.

Retention isn’t the only reason though. In a startup team we need everyone at 100% as soon as possible – how you set expectations and goals at the start, without creating information overload, defines how quickly your new starters will get to full productivity.

Design fundamentals that set new starters up for success

Your onboarding plan wants to include the admin side of joining, social elements to help new joiners feel immediately connected, and most importantly, help them confidently get up and running asap. It literally maps out their first few days and weeks.

Think about the onboarding plan for a new starter in blocks of time over a 3 month period – Day 1, Week 1, Week 2, 3 and 4, Month 2 and Month 3. At the start, it will have everything mapped out for them (day 1, week 1) but by week 3 and 4 ownership is in their hands, with support and direction from you. Being able to share this plan on day 1, gives a positive impression of you and the company, and provides a clear sense of expectations and the bigger picture to your new starter.

Designing the plan starts with their roles and responsibilities: It’s easy to think (especially with senior hires) that you can just give them their JD and they can crack on, but this usually leads to misaligned prioritisation and dashed expectations, costing time and money. Instead, break down their role, identifying:

– Some quick wins: Which areas of responsibility can they own straight away from week 1? These might be low risk / day-to-day tasks or be areas where they already have a lot of experience. The aim of this early ownership is to give your new starter a sense of accomplishment and control early on. 

– Incremental responsibilities: Which areas of their role can be briefed and owned from week 2 and 3? These are the more complex parts of the day-to-day role, that might require a bit more handover due to technical skills or business-specific knowledge. Spread them out over the first few weeks, with the aim that the day-to-day aspects of the role are owned by the end of the first month.

– Projects to kick off with: What projects should they pick up first? Once they’ve got to grips with the day-to-day, what are the areas you want them to own and add value to? Aim for these projects to be manageable but stretching and align fully to their role in the team. To get the right balance of expectations for these, use our mini-brief template.

Added value projects: What projects would deliver most value to the business in their first six months? These are the areas where this person brings their experience to make a difference. Prioritise one or two for month two to six – effective delivery of these will also help you assess probationary performance.

Tip: How you provide the onboarding plan to your new starter is different from startup to startup. Some use Trello or Notion, others present it as a document – the most important thing is that they have something in hand that anchors them to the bigger plan over the weeks and months ahead.

Who owns onboarding?

This question comes up a lot, so we checked it out with our #FounderFamily. Ultimately it comes down to creating a great experience for your new starter – no-one should be too busy for that – but it does change with stage.

Pre-seed stage – own it as the founder/C-suite. In most cases, you’re likely to be the line-manager anyway – if you’re not, then work with the line manager to do it justice together.

Seed-stage – define the onboarding process as the founder using this guide, and if you’re the line manager then lead it too. If you’re not, then train the line manager to create the plan and a brilliant experience and you can meet the new starter for an informal meeting in week 1.

Series A/B/C – At this stage a Head of People or HR professional has usually been added to the team – so they can build on the onboarding process and support all line-managers in delivering it.

Later stage – when you’ve got a few hundred people, you may even recruit an onboarding specialist into the People team to support line managers.

Your roadmap for onboarding effectively:

The following roadmap incorporates the design fundamental ideas and is aimed at being a checklist of things to consider.

Pre-onboarding – How can you build on that new-job excitement and spread your culture before they join?
Ideas to consider:
  • Send a welcome email soon after they accept, making them feel part of the team, and sharing key info about their first day (start time, dress code, paperwork required etc)
  • Send out a swag bag – if you’ve got startup branded kit, get it to them before they start!
  • Send a first day email just before their first day to alleviate any of those first-day worries – nice touches include who to ask for on arrival, a snapshot of their first day, and a reminder of their start time.
And don’t forget to…
  • Brief the team on the new starter – you want everyone to know who they are on their first day to make them feel special on arrival
  • Put aside time to work on their onboarding plan
  • Get the wheels in motion for their desk and IT set up
  • Assign and brief their buddy – this is usually a peer
Day 1 – How can you create a first-day experience that leaves a lasting positive impression and settles first-day nerves?
Ideas to consider:
  • If you’re in the office, do a tour – starting with their desk, the loos and the kitchen! If you’re a virtual team, show them around your team spaces.
  • Have an orientation meeting early in the day:
    • Do it over a coffee to settle those nerves and share key documents. This might include your employee handbook and any legal checks, but also walk them through the onboarding plan so that they can see the bigger picture and how you’re easing them into their role over a few weeks.
    • Share a new starter welcome document – this can include IT info and logins, as well as links to key documents that they might want to read on their first day (eg. Customer, marketing and sales docs) to help them learn the ropes.
  • Organise a team lunch so that your new starter gets to know people. If you’re a remote team, do a virtual lunch and maybe even shout the whole team Deliveroo credit.
  • Include a coffee with their buddy who can answer all those ‘silly’ questions that come up on day 1!
  • Finish the day with a 1:1 catch up – by bookending the day, you can set the scene at the start and check-in and cover questions at the end.
Don’t forget to…
  • Have new starters invited to the relevant team and project meetings
  • Add all meetings to their new calendar
  • Build in downtime on their first day so they can read the info you give them!

Tip: Don’t have them arrive at 9am like a normal day – go for 10am or 11am – and make sure they know when most people clock off each day too!

Week 1 – How can they learn the ropes and start to feel like they’re achieving something?
Ideas to consider:
  • Set up 1:1s with key people in the team for learning about their roles
  • Schedule training or briefing time to get them started with their Quick Win tasks
  • Include plenty of shadowing (of you or other key team members) – this observation time gets them seeing how things work and meeting more new people
  • Include one or two more 1:1s with you to cover questions and help keep them on track.
Don’t forget to…
  • Build in plenty of time to actually take ownership of their Quick Win tasks!
Weeks 2-4 – How can you help them get stuck in effectively?
Ideas to consider:
  • Schedule relevant training and briefing time aligned to each of their new day-to-day responsibilities, so they can get up and running.
  • Towards the end of the month, schedule time to brief those initial projects.
  • Include weekly 1:1s with you – even if you don’t do weekly 1:1s as standard practice, do it for the first month as unanswered questions will stall their progress.
  • Arrange a coffee catch up with other co-founders / senior people in the company to expand their horizons.
  • Have an informal review at the end of week 4.
The 30 to 90 day ramp-up period

This is where the projects start being integrated. It’s tempting to give new starters free reign at this point, but guidance on what to prioritise based on the onboarding plan pays off in the long run. By thinking of this period as a ramp-up period new starters can fit in the learning that comes with any new role, whilst incrementally increasing responsibility and level of impact. How many projects are added each month will of course vary by role, but one or two chunky projects per month should have most middle to senior level team members building up to their full role by 3 months.

Don’t forget to…
  • Schedule time for feedback each month in this time period: Aim for a two-way flow, with you supporting their development, but also them sharing feedback and ideas on the company and team. Some of the best ideas for improvements come from the fresh eyes of new starters – in fact it’s not uncommon for those Added Value projects to come from new starters themselves.
Crunch time – 3-6 months

This is the time period where we really want our new starters to be fully delivering against their role and starting to add value – your onboarding plan with incremental responsibilities will have set them up effectively to do this. Now they can start taking on those Added Value projects.

This is also a good time to explain the team’s process around Performance Reviews, when they’ll have their first one (usually 6 months), how this fits with their probationary period, and how they will be evaluated in this review process.

FounderCircle members can access this as a Onboarding Checklist in the Hub too.

Written by Christina Richardson, founder at weare3Sixty
Founder coach & trainer | Startup exec-team coach | FounderCircle® creator & head-coach. Passionate about sustainable founder performance, wellbeing and the leadership transition from founder to C-suite.

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