Why Wait for Value?

April 27, 2008 by
Filed under: Leadership, People 

I have often heard different perspectives on how long you can expect to wait before a new hire is productive. Usually the numbers come in around 3 to 6 months, and in many shops where there isn’t a sound infrastructure for communicating the company’s business sector, products and practices, this seems a reasonable timeframe. What is important to recognize, though, is that in those initial months, we should at least make sure that this new hire is not a liability.

In the studies I have conducted with over 700 respondents, only about 5% have noted that they had organized training to bring them into the fold of their current position. The lion’s share, over 73%, had responses split almost evenly between between ‘there was a plan, but there was on-the-job learning as well’ and ‘I was left to my own devices’. With that 36% that were left to fend for themselves and an additional 1% that said they still were not sure how they were learning, there might be some opportunities for improvement here. Anyone care to estimate the cost to the industry from this issue alone?

I know that whenever I visit a new company, I’m smacked upside the head with all sorts of jargon, acronyms and euphemisms that have become part of that culture. For my role as a transient visitor to this foreign language, it is usually sufficient for me to inquire about a couple of these things that seem to be salient bits of information, while I let the remainder sail right past me. For employees, though, this would be a dangerous practice. Most places that I visit don’t even have something as simple as an acronym list or glossary for terms they use frequently.

Think about the process of bringing someone on board. You finish the paperwork in HR (or if the company is small enough, your manager will handle this), get the quick tour of all the critical things like washrooms and the coffee station, and are shown your desk. You have been introduced to a bunch of other people, start to understand who the go-to people seem to be, and might even meet some other new hires if there is serious growth happening. If you are lucky, it won’t be too long before you have access to a computer and e-mail (or again, if it is a small company, maybe a directive to order your new machine from Dell), and away you go.

Away you go – but to where? The first week is filled with a ton of questions (with a very gradual decay thereafter), with few apparent answers. The typical approach to deal with this is to muddle around until curiosity overcomes embarrassment, and you go ask for help. You will check in with your boss if your teammates seem too busy (and if they’re not busy, why the heck were you hired?), and she’ll often answer your question. That response might be to go check with someone else that has the real answer.

And so it continues. Not only is your learning curve excruciatingly slow, that process is dragging many other people down along with you. There is a good chance they have answered the same question you have each time a new hire has come in the door since they arrived, and it seems like an unfortunate part of doing business. It is not inconceivable that in your initial few months, there is a significant net loss in productivity around you.

Not that you should bear the blame for this, responsibility for productivity of the team is not on your shoulders. The low-level bleeding of time consumed by short little interruptions doesn’t seem like a lot, but it adds up quickly, and is for the most part avoidable.

Consider a different approach for new hires. Day one, once they have settled in and brewed their first pot of coffee (or made their first Starbucks run), they get their first assignment: given what infrastructure there currently is to support new hires, their task is to flesh this out based on their experiences over their coming weeks. Don’t understand what an acronym stands for? Go find out and capture that information. No acronym list in existence? Start one, and put it in the right location. That location is not identiifed? Figure out a reasonable structure that will work. And so it continues.

This activity needs to be managed, of course. Check in every week or so with progress and discussion of issues, make it a critical task, not busy-work. Be clear that it is a task that never disappears, but should quickly consume far less time than during that first week. The next hires will have a stronger basis on which to work from, and their task will be easier because of it. Everyone else will benefit from the fact that they won’t be asked for the umptheenth time what that acronym meant, or where to get that information, or how do we do this here.

Eventually, your whole team will have a healthy respect for this infrastructure they have built`, will appreciate its value for both consistency and efficiency, and everything will run more smoothly. Better than telling that damned new kid the same old story about how we check in code around here. – JB


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