Common-sense simple and still crazy hard: Agency onboarding

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The Martin Agency's COO describes how a strong start means success for the long haul

A group of valuable new employees you’ve diligently recruited shows up for their first day at the agency. They are eager, and maybe even a little anxious, to start their new jobs. Until now, they’ve known the agency by reputation only and they can’t wait to be wowed by the most exciting, welcoming first day ever.  

Instead, they get a quick introduction to their new teammates who are running late for a client call. They may even hear the refrain: "It’s not always like this, but today is crazy busy." Then they’re ushered into a conference room where they face a mountain of health insurance and orientation paperwork and a cold box lunch.

Sound familiar?

Far too often, in hectic agency environments that are increasingly time starved, new employee onboarding simply doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Yet a recent Aberdeen Group study found that "new employees are 69% more likely to stay longer than three years if they experience well-structured onboarding."

That statistic was the nudge we needed to completely overhaul our onboarding program. We shifted our mindset and worked to make orientation a personal, enjoyable immersion in our business and our culture. This allows new employees to actually hit the ground running and contribute more quickly, which, as we all know, is one of the great joys of work. Most importantly, we’re hearing from our new hires that this process is helping reinforce that they made the right career choice.

Here are a few changes we’ve made that are making a big difference:

You told them you wanted them — now show them. Rather than a dull conference room, orientation takes place in our gallery, which is a bright, busy, open space at the center of the agency. During the next few hours, new hires hear from our CEO, Matt Williams, about our culture of "Good & Tough" and our chairman, John Adams, talks to them about our company values he penned in 1996. Next, a creative director pops in to talk about our approach to the work followed by a seasoned project manager who explains in detail how work moves through the agency. By the end of these sessions, new employees know exactly who we are, what we do and how we do it. Finally, at the end of the day, they are invited to an informal mixer where their supervisors and colleagues gather to welcome and get to know them.

Throw the book at them.  Our new hires say our Welcome Book (onboarding journal) is one of a kind. It arms our new employees with a personal map for their adventure at The Martin Agency, guiding them through a four-month immersion into our company. It gives tips and ideas for engaging with supervisors and teammates. And to show that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, each tab features doodles and notes sections with page 34 even encouraging "your best conference-call art." The book was conceived and written by a team here at the agency with a production assist by The Frontier Project.

Save HR & paperwork for Day #2. HR plays an invaluable role in the new hire process and we’ve got a fantastic HR team. But we made the decision to minimize their involvement on the first day by engaging employees from across departments to lead the orientation charge. It can be a project manager and an AV specialist working together, or a copywriter and a producer teaming up. They’re given basic guidelines and material to cover, but are encouraged to put their own personal touch on the day.

Show them the ropes – no excuses. When we asked some relatively new employees about their onboarding experience with us, we learned we suffered from another common onboarding faux pas. New hires couldn’t contribute right away because no one had time to train them. The solution was simple: Have a training plan, and stick to it. Now, departments customize specific plans for onboarding new talent that are faithfully completed during the employees’ first few days at the agency.

Play matchmaker. Nothing makes new employees feel more welcome than other employees. And if these new friends are folks they might not otherwise get to interact with in their first 90 days, all the better. With our new buddy system, we find out our new hires’ interests and hobbies, how old their children are, where they’re going to live, et al., and connect them with like-minded employees. It’s like Match.com, but for work friends (and without the .com).

Tell us what your fresh eyes see. We love new hires; they bring an invaluable fresh perspective, and we find it invigorating to talk with them. From the beginning, we go to great lengths to make sure their voices are heard and to remind them that we really want their opinion. At every orientation, an executive committee member welcomes the group. We share our story and talk candidly about the agency and the industry. We remind them that they’re bringing something to the table that the rest of us can no longer bring: a fresh set of eyes without a Martin filter. That’s critical to us and we encourage them to be vocal and have a point of view on what we could be doing better. We tell them our doors are always open and to stop by often. In fact, our CEO meets with new hires monthly.

"The onboarding process was groundbreaking for me when I started at The Martin Agency," said Lauren Prociv, an experience planner in our strategic planning department. "Not only did I meet people who became good friends, I learned about the Good & Tough culture of the agency – good to each other and tough on the work – which instilled in me the confidence to immediately share my ideas despite being an ad rookie."

While none of these steps may sound individually earth-shattering, we’ve found that when everyone faithfully does their part, the combined effect really does make a big difference both to new employees and to all of us who welcome and learn from them.

Beth Rilee-Kelley is the chief operating officer of The Martin Agency. 

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