Most people understand the importance of a good first impression. So on our first day with a new company, we arrive early. Maybe we overdress. We know that starting out strong will make it easier to succeed in the long run.

But when it comes to achieving success, the onus is not only on the recent hire. Companies need to set the stage for their employees to hit the ground running.

In this month’s Insight In Person podcast, you will hear from Kellogg’s U.S. Army Chief of Staff Senior Fellow about how the Army handles a high rate of transition on a personal level. Later, a Kellogg School lecturer and entrepreneur looks at onboarding in younger, leaner organizations—like startups—that are experiencing explosive growth.

Podcast Transcript

[music prelude]

Jessica LOVE Hello, and Welcome to Insight in Person, the monthly podcast of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. I’m your host, Jessica Love.

Most people understand the importance of a good first impression. So on our first day with a new company, we arrive early. Maybe we overdress. We know that starting out strong will make it easier to succeed in the long run.

But when it comes to achieving success, the onus isn’t just on the recent hire.

In this episode, we explore the important, but often overlooked, topic of onboarding.

In the first part of our podcast, we hear how a famously huge and hierarchical organization—the U.S. army—brings new people into its fold.

Later, we’ll look at onboarding in younger, leaner organizations—like startups—that are experiencing explosive growth.

So stay with us.

[music interlude]

Brian HALLORAN If you don’t have an onboarding process or you don’t have the trusted agents that are going to tell new people how things happen, what’s the best way to accomplish something, then you may end up with a lot of stumbling blocks along the way.

LOVE That’s U.S. Army Colonel Brian Halloran—Kellogg’s current Chief of Staff of the Army Senior Fellow.

[music interlude]

LOVE The army is an organization that has to think about onboarding a lot. A typical military assignment lasts three years, which makes for an annual turnover rate of about 33 percent. Most of that turnover is concentrated in the summer, when many new recruits are brought in and when relocating soldiers with families is least disruptive.

By necessity, the army has developed a system for integrating service members into new roles. Some parts of this system are specific to the military—basic training, for instance.

But other parts could be adopted by just about any organization.

HALLORAN What the army does is you’ll get assigned a sponsor, somebody who you’re going to get your first letter from a few months out, what job they expect that you’re going to be doing. That person hopefully becomes your first trusted confidante.

LOVE A sponsor is a point person of sorts: someone to show you around and field questions about the role and, if you’ve relocated, the area.

But, not just anyone will do.

HALLORAN An analogy you could use is athletes versus coaches. Sometimes, the superstar athlete, the best performer you have on the field, may not be the best coach. Sometimes, there’s some ingrained ability to get things done on that field that they don’t have to think through because to them, it just comes naturally. That’s probably not the best person to assign as a sponsor, because when the new person comes in, they may not have those same natural abilities. They may not have that same insight. Picking the right person—maybe somebody who is close enough to their own onboarding session to remember what went well, what didn’t go well, and what they would have liked to have seen a little more of—is another thing that can help the process along.

LOVE But a sponsor is only one person. For true integration, a new officer or employee should get a chance to meet lots of other people in the organization.

HALLORAN Your first-line supervisor is probably going to be the first or second person you meet beyond the sponsor, but the two up or three up, you should probably be meeting within 72 hours.

LOVE That’s people two or three levels above you in the chain of command. Colonel Halloran believes it is important to meet your boss’s boss and, if possible, your boss’s boss’s boss.

HALLORAN You get that immediate impact of, “Okay, the leadership cares about me. They want to get me onboard. They want me to become a productive member of this team.”

LOVE The meeting needn’t just be about business, either. Personal inquiries are key. If an employee is still waiting for furniture to arrive, or is trying to enroll a first grader into school, that employee probably isn’t able to focus on work. And, Colonel Halloran says, don’t expect the employee to come to leadership with these personal problems.

HALLORAN If you don’t ask the people you’re working with what’s going on in your lives, generally speaking, they’re not going to tell you. Every person you work with, in my case, every soldier, every department of the army civilian has something going on in their life that you can help with, that you can make things easier with, not by doing anything different or changing it, not by treating them specially or by changing a standard, but just by knowing about it, you can make that better. You’ve got to ask and you’ve got to build up that trust to be able to do that. That starts as soon as somebody gets there.

LOVE Finally, when a new employee meets with her two or three up—her boss’s boss and boss’s boss’s boss—right away, it gives her a sense of how her daily activities fit into the organization’s larger goals.

HALLORAN What that does is it helps prevent somebody doing something that works great at their level but ends up causing a bigger problem for the overall organization. If you think in terms of production, if somebody’s running a production line, they may be able to knock out 5,000 widgets a day. But if you can’t move 5,000 widgets a day, you’re going to have to pay money to store them and the overall organization’s going to have more cost. You’ve got to understand where you fit in and how you can optimize the whole organization, not just what I and my unit are doing.

[music interlude]

LOVE So onboarding in the military, an institution that has been around for more than 200 years, is one thing. But what if you’re employee one at a startup? What if your company is going from 10 to 50 employees in six months, with almost all of those new hires stepping into positions that have never existed before?

Established companies set budgets and headcount that forecast the coming year’s hires. This allows for lead time and support in the onboarding process.

Startups tend to hire by need and often hire onlyafter they realize they need someone. This can lead to already overworked teams scrambling to bring on a new hire and paying the price in poor decisions.

Here’s Troy Henikoff, managing director of of TechStars Chicago and Math Venture Partners, and an Adjunct Lecturer of Marketing at the Kellogg School.

Troy HENIKOFF It’s really important even as a small company to be more deliberate in planning in your hiring and onboarding, and know what are the triggers that say now it’s time to start looking, now it’s time to start making an offer, now it’s time to bring someone on. We tend to do it too late because we’re too cheap, too scrappy, and we do it in too rushed of a way.

LOVE There are two problems with that.

HENIKOFF One is the amount of time you put in recruiting and interviewing and selecting is not enough, because there’s so much urgency and you end up potentially making bad hires. Two is you have this belief that this person is going to come in and be a panacea.

LOVE Henikoff experienced this first hand with, a wedding-planning startup. The company received an injection of funding with the directive that Henikoff hire a team immediately. That meant going from 1 employee to 15—in 30 days. Yes, 30 days. He filled all the spots the company needed: from a technology director to front end designers to sales people.

HENIKOFF The problem is that I hired them as little puzzle pieces and I hadn’t clearly articulated what the culture of the business was going to be and what the mission was for the business.

What happened was, very quickly, everybody brought their own perspective to the table and everybody had their own idea of what we were supposed to be doing, and there was a lot of conflict. Sales didn’t understand what development’s priorities were, development didn’t understand sales’ priorities, and it was really difficult—and it came as a big surprise to me.

We had the land of misfit toys, absolutely, for awhile. And it’s hard to undo.

LOVE So when and how should new team members be brought on board?

HENIKOFF In small companies you have no idea what the future looks like. The best way to plan for it that I know is to be driven by KPIs: Key Performance Indicators. You should have a set of KPIs that give you an idea of what kind of traction you’re trying to get, what kind of productivity you can expect from each individual in each role. When those numbers get to be too large for a person, that should be the trigger.

Love: Once that KPI crosses the threshold and, ding, you need a new employee, the task changes to finding the right person for the job.

Setting firm expectations about a role in this dynamic environment can be difficult, but a scrappy startup can use this dynamism to its advantage.

HENIKOFF First of all, you have to define the job and the role very very tightly and very clearly. You have to manage their expectations coming in very tightly and very clearly. You want to do a great job of training them up front and setting those expectations.

LOVE Selling potential hires on the advantages of a new company over an established company is important.

HENIKOFF You can’t compete on the things that they compete on: benefits and health plans and all that stuff, and even salary. I try to—the things that we have an advantage on: having autonomy, being able to innovate, being able to have a real impact.

LOVE Managers at small companies also have to ensure that new hires’ priorities are aligned with the company’s mission and vision. Henikoff had a test to weigh that fit.

HENIKOFF One of the things that I did as a hiring manager is I would always try to talk someone out of the job before they came. I would say, “I’m going to tell you the seven reasons you don’t want this job.” I said it sort of tongue-in-cheek, and I said I really do want you, but I want to make sure you’re here for the right reasons.

[music interlude]

LOVE One thing young companies have to keep in mind is that the right reasons for people to be there—and the culture itself—may evolve.

When Henikoff was part of the leadership team at SurePayroll, they knew that their team’s priority was going to be customer service. So they designed their Key Performance Indicators around how many calls each of their customer service reps could handle in an hour. But there was a cultural gap between the customer service force and the leadership.

HENIKOFF Initially, we were all about the numbers. What we found was that our customer service people were very eager to get off the phone because they were being measured by how many calls an hour they could take.

LOVE By focusing on call rate, SurePayroll developed a culture where customer service employees did not prioritize resolving customer issues.

HENIKOFF Once we realized how expensive it was to lose customers, we totally changed that and said, “Wait a minute, we don’t want to measure that anymore in customer service. We don’t want a culture of speed; we want a culture of compassion.”

LOVE The company’s onboarding and training programs began to reflect this cultural shift. Payroll issues are often complex, which means they can take time to identify and resolve.

Leadership began to emphasize customer satisfaction—and retention—over call rate. If helping someone took four hours, new hires were told, sticking with them was better for the long-term outlook of the company than hustling off the phone.

HENIKOFF We actually even went as far as to change our tagline at SurePayroll, which was originally “Click, click, payroll’s done”—which meant basically, “Hey, we’re really good with technology; we make it so easy”—to “SurePayroll: Your payroll, our passion.”

[music interlude]

LOVE This program was produced by Jessica Love, Fred Schmalz, Emily Stone, and Michael Spikes.

Special thanks to Kellogg lecturer Troy Henikoff and U.S. Army Chief of Staff Senior Fellow Brian Halloran.

You can stream or download our monthly podcast from iTunes, or from our website, where you can read more about company culture, leadership, and setting teams up for success. Visit us at We’ll be back next month with another Insight In Person podcast.