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Why You Must Make Culture The Centerpiece Of Your Onboarding Program

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 5/11/2015 George Bradt

People fail in new jobs because of poor fit, poor delivery or poor adjustment to changes down the road. Assuming you've aligned the organization around the need for your new employees and acquired them in the right way, your onboarding program should accommodate their needs (so they can do real work), assimilate them into the organization (so they fit culturally) and accelerate their progress (so they can deliver and adjust). Of these, the most important and generally least well implemented is integration into the cultural.
Three ideas: 1) Corporate culture is the only truly sustainable competitive advantage; 2) Poor fit with the culture is the #1 cause of new hire failure; 3) Executive onboarding is the key to accelerating success and reducing risk in a new job. You can't put those together without seeing how important it is to make culture the centerpiece of your onboarding program.
In many ways this is less of an issue with very small or very large organizations than it is with organizations just beginning to scale up. With very small organizations, the culture is closely linked to the founders' preferences across the components of a BRAVE culture: behaviors, relationships, attitudes, values and environment. The founders are ever-present and ever-reinforcing those preferences. By the time organizations get large, they have generally agreed a set of guiding principles that reinforce the culture.
The issue comes when organizations suddenly grow too big for the founders to know everyone personally. JAMF Software CEO Dean Hager describes that time as an organization's "teen age years". He joined JAMF in June 2015 to shepherd it through adolescence to its next stage of maturation. He told me it's all about "scaling culture" to grow while preserving all the wonderful things that made the organization what it is. He knows its tricky because "so many companies lose their souls" at this point.
JAMF is a shining example of how to put culture at the center of onboarding. Every new employee goes through its "Zero Month" orientation. This includes three one week modules focused on:

  1. Culture - Learning about the organization's history and culture through a series of conversations with the founders and key managers at the corporate headquarters.
  2. Role - Orientation within the individual employees' functions.
  3. Product - Training on JAMF's enterprise management solutions for the Apple platforms so every person in the company walks away with a "great understanding of what we do for customers".

When Hager says "every" employee goes through this, he means everyone from the people cleaning JAMF's offices in Amsterdam to the new CEO. And they go through it together, 10-20 of them each month. The person sitting next to Hager in his first session was a 22 year old straight out of college.
The investment is huge and the impact even greater. People walk out of JAMF's Zero Month saying "I can't believe I'm part of an organization in which culture is that important". The company's willingness to take a short-term financial hit to preserve what is so important is "emotional to experience". As a result they've had a 90%+ retention rate of employees and 95%+ retention rate of customers.
This is similar to the way the Qlik company pulled its entire organization together for a week-long off-site strategy review every year between 2000 and 2015. Every year someone wondered if they would be able to afford to do the meeting the next year if they kept growing as fast as they had been. Every year the CEO, Lars Bjork, looked forward and knew "We won't be able to afford not to do it."
Implications for you
Connect the dots in your organization. Embrace the truth that culture is your only sustainable competitive advantage. Hire for cultural fit and then make culture a centerpiece of your onboarding efforts. Call it orientation. Call it indoctrination. Call it brainwashing. It doesn't matter. What does matter is making sure that your new employees are all committed to the same cause by the end of their onboarding.
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