“Sink or Swim” Onboarding: A Coach’s Lens on Individual Responsibility
Posted October 30, 2023

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In today’s business environment, most new hires experience a “sink or swim” onboarding approach. While many organizations have attempted to implement effective onboarding procedures, most are either hastily implemented or do not consistently yield favorable outcomes.

As a coach working in the leadership and transition space, I frequently advise clients that, regardless of the organizational landscape, there are critical behaviors and mindsets individuals must adopt to ensure their success in a new role.

Why Individual Behaviors Matter

Even in companies with structured onboarding processes, your first impression is fundamentally shaped by your actions and how you engage with the process. In organizations without formal onboarding, individual initiative is your only lever. We must keep in mind that onboarding is not merely about how to do your job; it serves as the foundation for your relationships, your initiation into the organization’s ethos, and the unwritten rules that exist within the company.

Creating Connection

Whether you call it networking or relationship-building, creating trustworthy, open lines of communication in your sphere is critical to your success. The word “sphere” here is paramount; this means building relationships vertically (within your leadership chain), horizontally (across departments and with your peers), and below you (with direct reports and support staff). This establishes your brand within the company and creates the partnerships necessary to navigate complexity and inevitable uncertainty.

Tactics to consider:

– Prioritize it! Use your free time—such as coffee breaks and lunch—to reach out and have conversations.

– Ask new contacts, “Who else should I meet?” to build your network.

– Get curious about your new connections. What did my predecessor do well, and what could they have improved? When we communicate, what would you like to see from me?

Ask Great Questions

A drive to prove oneself often limits an individual’s willingness to ask questions—both during initial onboarding and after we believe that we should be up to speed. I invite you to set this belief aside. It is crucial to ask questions and to keep asking questions. These begin as queries to clarify roles, responsibilities, and expectations and evolve into check-ins to keep up with the changing landscape. Contrary to the fear of appearing uninformed, well-grounded questions demonstrate that you are strategic, thoughtful, and driven to contribute effectively.\

Tactics to consider:

– Stay curious! Allocate time to reflect and identify gaps in your skills and understanding. Use questions to bring hidden information to light.

– Leverage the expertise of others. How might you approach x? Where can I learn more about y?

Confidence & the Importance of Showing Up

Confidence was certainly a factor in getting you through the door—you have the ability to perform the role for which you were hired. This invitation for confidence during onboarding is not about protecting your ego with thoughts like, “I’m a big shot and I know everything.” Instead, it’s about having confidence in your ability to figure out how to be effective. To do this, you need to show up with presence, engagement, and openness. Confidence and curiosity are not mutually exclusive; in fact, it takes confidence to be curious.

Tactics to consider:

– Consider asking trusted colleagues the following questions: “What should I be asking that I haven’t?” “What am I missing?”

– Trust that you’re here for a reason and you’ve been successful in the past. Stay engaged and trust that you’ll figure it out. Ask questions and seek help when things feel tricky.

– Remember that your success is in your hands. You can’t look externally to solve your internal challenges.

Tune-in to the Culture

In every organization there are existing cliques, alliances and sources of tension. Dial into the existence of negativity and gossip and be careful taking these things at face value. Remember what your values and don’t compromise them to fit in. Seek to understand the culture of an organization, but remember that you are always creating a culture around yourself! What do you want that culture to look like? Especially if you’re in a leadership role, you have a massive impact on your supervisors, peers and reports by how you show up.

Tactics to consider:

– Note other people’s mindsets – where do you sense negativity? Enthusiasm? Complacency? Judgment?

– Identify and connect to your values – what is most important to you? How are you operating in alignment with them? Where do you see alignment or misalignment in your environment?

Final Thoughts

How you show up as a new employee is your choice – be aware of the muscle memory you have from your previous jobs that may or may not serve you. From the moment you step through the door, your initiative and behaviors set the stage for two things: creating the conditions for your own success and fostering an intentional environment around you. Others can feel this energy, and it gives them the opportunity to meet you there.

If you happen to be a leader and a manager of new hires, keep in mind that the deck is largely stacked against them. By using the levers available to you, you can make a significant difference in the success of new teammates.

Working with an ICF-certified coach can help you put these ideas into practice. When stepping into new spaces, my clients often feel tension that can be challenging to navigate. My coaching programs are designed to help you create awareness and implement concepts like these into your work-life. Reach out to explore how you might benefit from making changes like these.

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