Helping New Team Members Demonstrate Their Worth

As an optimist, I believe people want to contribute to a purpose greater than themselves. The most direct path to achieving this aspiration is to join a movement, a startup, an established company or a branch of government.

While hiring practices between organisations will vary, candidates that make it through can expect one certainty; a unique culture. And more often than not it will be a culture they didn’t expect.

By joining the military, you will be greeted by the idea of the daily renewable contract. By joining Apple, being the best in the world at the role for which you were hired is the main game.

There is an example for every organisation.

More established organisations have resources and infrastructure to afford new hires a grace period while they learn the ropes. This is a luxury most startups try to extend to new hires but often fall short due to the perennial fight against the ever-shortening runway. And it’s not just the cash burn that comes with adding new hires that worry founders. It’s whether new hires can increase the ventures’ overall momentum.

The reality is that founders need new hires to demonstrate their worth as quickly as possible or move them on. It’s particularly stressful for founders when the company has less than 20 employees because every dollar and day count. And the cost of a hiring mistake not only slows momentum, but it can also bring it to a complete stall.

Where the new hire experience falls short

Every culture has a standard. An amalgam of overt and hidden behaviours and expectations that reveals itself with time. If the founders have done an excellent job, a ventures values will set the scaffolding for that standard.

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Instead, I suspect most new hire experiences follow a pattern not dissimilar to:

  1. Being welcomed and introduced to their team at the beginning of a working week
  2. Gaining access to hardware and services
  3. Spending time with their manager to discuss their role (which may or may not have been oversold)
  4. Completing mandatory online compliance training
  5. Attending meetings to ‘learn how the business operates’ (and the personalities and politics at play)

Putting aside the fun and brilliantly executed first-day welcome rituals for which some companies are renowned (none better than Nova 106.9FM), these five steps are a practical approach to on-boarding. But it’s functional (and beige). It also leaves new hires to work out ‘how work is done’ in their new workplace.

Where time is of the essence, and as a founder you’ve made the call to bring a new person onto the team, I think there is a way to new hires more productive.

This idea has come from mulling this question.

How can I help new team members demonstrate their worth?

My hypothesis is that new hires are left to demonstrate their worth using only a portion of a venture’s cultural information.

Let me explain.

Whether you conduct paid auditions (the playbook I use is here) or hire directly from a resume and interview process, there is a good chance you hire new people and expect them to deliver exceptional results in the shortest possible time. Even if the five-step on-boarding process (above) is only broadly consistent with what happens at your venture, you are relying on that new team member to interpret A LOT about how work gets done.

Dig a little further, and you’ll soon see that this means you are relying on them to decipher personalities, develop context, understand competing priorities and determine their version of the companies values. Sound troubling? You bet it is.

I often think about LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s rocket ship analogy, ‘a small mistake can leave you very far off track in the long run’. Leaving a new hire to do this level of interpretation is a small mistake that can be corrected before significant medium and long-term issues arise.

I also believe that when new team members are allowed to demonstrate their skills and earn respect and recognition of their peers (i.e. prove their worth), they not only drive the venture forward, they deepen the quality of our culture.

Here is how I coach new hires to help them demonstrate their worth from day one.

1. Walkthrough the values. Together.

Most company values have been crafted after much thought and reflection. New hires have few ways to access that context, even when each value is clear and relatively easy to understand. By way of example, here are the values of my venture, Drop Bio (People first, science second. Every idea matters. Champion the mission. Make every day count. Thoughtfully disagree). Most of these make sense at first glance, but they have specific context given our work.

Team members should understand each value. And it’s not enough for the CEO to be the only one describing these values to new hires. I’m a fan of having two team members meet with a new hire for coffee to explain each company value. The intent of this ritual in a growing company is to provide each new hire with a clear explanation and a diverse set of examples to illustrate each value. This sets the new hire up with a clear basis to contribute and make decisions. This is an essential and often over-looked step in onboarding new hires.

2. Ask thoughtful questions and make calculated comments

We have all been in meetings where unfounded observations have taken conversations off-track and resulted in people unnecessarily investigating an anomaly. Notwithstanding the waste of time, this can have limited repercussions for a senior manager. However, the reputation damage to a new hire can be significant.

I coach new hires to prepare thoughtfully for each meeting in three ways.

First, come armed with at least three thoughtful questions. The meeting topic and attendees will be known ahead of time, so look into the subject matter and interrogate the minutes of the previous meeting, if available. A good question can change the game.

Second, offer comments and observations that are grounded in evidence. And be able to share the evidence as requested.

Third, and instead of blurting out a comment grounded in personal bias, offer a statement that inspires debate by saying ‘my hypothesis is that [complete propose thought]’

3. Bring a bit of life to work

We all have lives outside work. I encourage new hires to share a little about their family, professional journey and interests as a way to develop bonds with their teammates. It also provides a basis from which humour can develop, and we all know the power that humour plays in circuit-breaking difficult situations.

One last thing…

I am all for giving new hires the latitude they need to demonstrate their worth. And while I am also performance-focused, I’m no fan of micro-management as a means to extract performance. My point is that all new hires should be given the information they need to demonstrate their worth and confidently establish their place in a team. This is particularly important when a company has different disciplines, each of which has inherently strong and sometimes competing cultures.

Instead of letting new hires assimilate through corridor conversations and interpreting cultural cues, give them the information they need to do their life best work. I suspect it will help accelerate momentum. And that will help you, as a founder, sleep a little easier.