The Alchemy of Org Building: Onboarding Employees to Make a Lasting First Impression

Reflecting back some 15 years, everything I needed to know about my wife I knew in the first 30 days of our relationship.  What I could expect of her.  What she expected of me.  The values we would share.  It was all there!  What does that have to do with org building?

First impressions have a lasting influence. An employee’s first weeks and months on the job are no different.  The cultural cues inherited during onboarding are internalized and reflected back into the organization long after onboarding is complete.

Our onboarding process in AppNexus Global Services (GS) was designed with that in mind.  Training employees in the skills required for their role is obviously important. However, reinforcing the culture we want to maintain is a higher level objective. One way we achieve both is through what we call the “GS Olympics,” which has two parts - the Trials and the Events.

The Olympic Trials are a series of five weekly role plays that begin immediately after the employee starts. In each role play the new hire “teaches” a topic to 6-12 “students” (who are actually their peers). The students grill the teacher with questions, leading to some stressful moments, but also great learning!

The Olympic Events is a series of oral exams administered around month four of their tenure. Each covers an advanced topic which the employee should have mastered. For example, “Trouble-Skeet-Shooting” tests troubleshooting skills and the “Optimization Jump” tests understanding of AppNexus algorithms. We have set evaluation criteria allowing the event “judges” to award Bronze, Silver, and Gold medals consistently.

The GS Olympics has five design principles:

  • You don't know what you know until you say it out loud. Our platform is very complex and our industry is new to most employees (see our hiring strategy). It is too easy to read about and use the product without understanding it well. The Olympics force new hires to speak coherently about what they have learned, which validates if they truly understand it.
  • Test to the point of failure.  The role plays are designed to test the limits of a new hire’s learning. The "students" will ask questions which completely stump “the teacher,” which is expected and helpful! The intent is to accelerate learning by identifying weak spots.
  • We learn best by teaching and doing. The best way to learn is to dig in, figure something out, and then teach it to someone. This gets you deeper and farther faster than more passive classroom style learning.
  • We perform better when the bar is high. There is a lot to learn as a new hire at AppNexus. It requires tremendous effort. We hire people who love that challenge. So we set the bar high from day one, provide a learning environment to support growth, and then the magic happens ... rock stars are born!
  • Pay it forward: It’s important to repay the good deeds you have received by doing good things for people you don’t know. Each new hire has benefited from other new hires, who created much of our onboarding material. They are expected to repay their predecessors by doing something to make the onboarding process better for the next new hire.

How does this reinforce the culture we want to maintain?

“Teaching and Learning” is a core value at AppNexus.  Employees start living that week one!

“Making Greatness Happen, Together” is another core value. Our bar for greatness is high; the challenges we face are steep. So straight away we put a big mountain in front of employees and ask them to climb it!  Yet … we do it together. We use a learning management system to structure the learning experience. Employees are assigned a Knowledge Buddy to help with daily technical questions, and a Mentor who guides them through the process and shares high-level business context on the industry. This process instills in employees a deep commitment to learning, teaching, greatness, and togetherness which they bring to everything they do throughout their AppNexus experience.

So, if you are thinking through your new hire onboarding process, start by defining what aspects of your culture are deeply important to maintain over time. Then design your onboarding process in a way that requires employees to demonstrate those behaviors. First impressions last a lifetime; make yours count!


See all postings from Brandon’s “Alchemy of Org Building” blog here.

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