Onboarding by the pack

Onboarding Lessons from the Pack

My wife says that she has a black heart, but I have never believed it. When she cares, she cares deeply, and almost nothing will dissuade her from her resolve. A case in point is our pack of dogs, which I call the dog pack from the island of misfit toys—each of our dogs is “unique,” with most having some form of special needs.  What I have learned from adopting and integrating them into our family, I think, has application to onboarding new personnel. Before you “bark at me” for associating new hires to a dog, give me a second. Let me introduce you to my dog “family” and then describe some applicable lessons.

We currently have six dogs, having very recently added a bipedal dog. Two are big dogs (a 125lb Weimer and a 75lb Great Dane) along with four smaller ones (Rat Pinscher, Schnauzer, Dachshund, and my best guess is a Dutch Shepherd). One is completely blind, one can barely see, is mostly deaf and almost feral, one only has two legs, and two were horribly abused and neglected before we adopted them. Both Eva and I were able to meet each dog at the shelter before deciding to bring them home. For most we were able to observe them in both at the kennel, and at our home interacting with our pack and family members. We watched them as individual animals as well as how they interacted with other dogs. 

Though we had some questions or concerns with every dog, namely around our ability to provide for them and the continued care of the existing pack, we both ultimately agreed to add them to our family. So what does this have to do with onboarding new personnel? Let me offer four perspectives.

Rule of 3s. Doing an internet search will return some advice about how an adopted dog’s behavior changes over three periods of time: three days, three weeks and three months. The primary point is that it takes time for a dog to feel safe, secure, trusted and loved, and for their real personality and behavior to become known. The same applies to new hires. During the first few days, a “decompression timeframe”, understand that the new hire is just trying to figure out who is who, what is where, where is everything (where I work, break room, printers, restrooms, etc.). Understand that what you see from an employee in an interview is not necessarily what you may readily see from them during the first week or month or quarter of joining the team. Focus on reducing the stress of jumping into a new organization, and on making them feel welcome. For instance, I recommend having a new person’s work environment fully set up for them, such as having an assigned work space, computer configured, email address assigned, shared drive partitioned, etc.  This will let them know that the company is excited to have them join the team, and that the team cares enough that they prepared a place for them. Also consider introducing new people to the team in a manner that does not overwhelm the person or the team.  At Arrowhead, each new hire has a 30 minute introduction session with each individual employee, and then a welcome lunch is scheduled with everyone.

During the first three week, let the new hire gain understanding and insights into the organizational culture, acceptable norms of personal and professional behavior, expected work effort and quality, and where they fit into the formal an informal organizational structure. Provide clear and consistent communicate about the acceptable standards of performance, and ensure that the culture that is described in new hire literature is what they see and hear from the team.  As time progresses, new hires gain understanding and confidence and will feel more comfortable “being themselves.” To account for this transitional period, I recommend that companies consider establishing a six-month new hire probationary period.

Understand each member of the Pack. Each of our dogs has a unique personality. Some are vocal while some are subdued. One is an outside dog, while most of the others enjoy couch time. One is the big brother to all, helping any of them find their way around house obstacles or a misplaced toy. One is the old lady of the pack, gently reminding the other dogs to “mind their manners.”  As a new dog is added, we take the time to get to know each dog, and to help the other dogs get to know the new member. As an organizational leader, take the time to understand a new hire, help them meet others on the team, and assist the team in getting to know and understand the strengths, capabilities and personalities of the newest member.

The Pack wants a leader. Though my wife is what the Army would call, “House 6”—the Commander of our house—all the dogs know that I am the Alpha male. A dog may like or not like something that another dog(s) is doing (or not doing), but I establish the norms for pack behavior. A pack needs a lead dog, that sets behavioral boundaries. Without it, a new dog does not know what to expect, and will feel confused and less secure in the environment. The same is true in an organization. A new hire needs to know what acceptable and unacceptable behaviors are, who establishes those standards, and who is formally and informally guiding the organization’s mission, vision, performance and values.

Your first duty is to the Pack. As much as you may want to adopt a dog, regardless of how much you think you can make a difference, your first allegiance is to the existing pack. We once adopted a dog that was partially blind, had obviously had a violent past, and had recently lost their “person.” After being assured that the dog was non-aggressive with other animals, we adopted her. Within five minutes of introducing the dog to our pack she had bitten one of our elderly dogs and had literally come within millimeters of killing her. We immediately rushed our dog to the emergency vet clinic, and took the violent dog back to the shelter. If you have attempted to work the person into the organization and into their role, have provided coaching and training, and you still feel that the person is neither a cultural nor a performance fit, then keeping the person any longer does nothing but diminish overall team performance, and increases the organization’s reputation or legal risk. Be the pack leader and immediately begin the process to terminate the person. Hire Slow, Fire Fast.

Our pack is a collection of special dogs with very diverse experiences and abilities, and I would not trade any of them for a more “normal” dog. The transition time from being the “new dog” to a fully accepted pack member varies depending on the needs and experiences of each dog (as it does with new team members). Thankfully, each has found a place in the pack and by adhering to the suggestions above, I’m sure your new hires will do the same.