DPM Podcast

DPM Podcast: Onboarding The Right Way (With Sarah Hoban)

By 13/11/2019 November 15th, 2019 No Comments

Ben Aston:

Welcome to the DPM podcast where we go beyond theory to give advice that works for leading better digital projects. Thanks for tuning in. I’m Ben Aston, founder of The Digital Project Manager.

So, you’ve got your new PM hire. They’re sat next to you, but you can’t help but notice they’re spending their entire day scrolling through Facebook. Why is that? Well, maybe it’s because you haven’t had a chance to onboard them properly. After all, it takes a really long time, right? So, you’ve got the new hire, but they can’t do any work. Now you’re stressed and you’re mad, but the good news is it doesn’t need to be this way.

Keep listening because in today’s podcast, we’re going to help you understand how to quickly and effectively onboard new staff and team members.

This podcast is brought to you by Clarizen, the leader in enterprise project and project management software. Visit clarizen to learn more.

Today, I’m joined by Sarah Hoban and she’s a Lead Project Manager at Booz Allen Hamilton based out of Washington, DC. She’s a PMP-certified PM and strategy consultant with over a decade of experience. Her career is really focused on incorporating project management techniques, somewhat stealthily sometimes, to advance strategy and improve process. She’s got a brilliant blog, so check out sarahhoban.com to read all about her PM adventures and more.

But Sarah, welcome and thanks for coming on the show.

Sarah Hoban:

Hey Ben, thanks. It’s great to be here.

Ben Aston:

Firstly, I’m always curious to know what people are up to, in terms of projects they’re working on, so what’s new for you at the moment?

Sarah Hoban:

Actually, a lot is going on. I just started up four new projects this week at the same time.

Ben Aston:

Wow.

Sarah Hoban:

Which is interesting. I can’t say I’m an expert by any means in any of them, but they’re related to facilities and transportation, which is a lot of the work that I’ve done in the past, so should be really exciting and interesting work. Eager to get started.

Ben Aston:

Was it your idea to start all four projects in the same week, or was that thrust upon you?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, I think one of them was planned and then the other three were unplanned, but that’s what makes it fun, right?

Ben Aston:

Let’s talk about starting a new project, in terms of it sounds like they were unplanned kickoffs maybe, but in that scenario, which happens to a lot of us I think, where all of a sudden out the window goes the normal or the ideal way of starting a project and we have to do this all of a sudden. What’s your MVP for a project kickoff in that scenario?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, so in my case it wasn’t actually a kickoff for a new project, it was transitioning from another PM who departed, so it was trying to get up to speed on where they were and how to institute your flavor and style to things. I think it’s not trying to make too many waves at once, but just figuring out a little bit of the areas where you can add some value right off the bat. That’s one thing. The second thing, I think, is connecting with your stakeholders and getting to build that relationship with them. Probably the two most important things to think about most immediately getting started.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. Tell me about that stakeholder engagement. How do you like to do that?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, so I like to do a one-on-one introduction with each of the client POCs that I’m going to be working with, as well as with my team members, I think that’s super important. Particularly with the team members, I try to sit down with them and understand what their role has been in the project to date, do they want to do more, are they looking for a different role, and just get to know them as a person, as opposed to they’re being thrust upon this new PM and they don’t know who I am or what I’m going to make them do type of thing. Get to know them as a person, I think is super important.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. Is all your team co-located or are you doing much of that remotely?

Sarah Hoban:

So far, it’s remote. There’s a few folks co-located with me in DC, but a couple folks scattered throughout the US, so a little bit of both.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. Do you find that challenging sometimes, trying to build rapport with people? You’re meeting them for the first time, you’re the new PM, and they’re like, “What is going on, who’s this person?” How do you get them to like you?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, that’s a really good point. It’s definitely harder when they’re remote because I think it’s harder to build that trust and that immediacy. I think one thing that I like to do is, I try to admit my vulnerability. I tell them, “You guys know more about this project than I do, so you need to educate me a little bit,” and I think that puts people at ease.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, nice. I mean, apart from taking on lots of projects and dealing with projects that are midway through that are always tough, within your role more generally, what are the kind of project management challenges that you’re dealing with?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, so I think it’s taking over a project where there maybe wasn’t as much structure in place or defined ways of doing things, and trying to figure out ways to introduce some of that structure without breaking the bank. Getting a handle on budgeted roles and where we can add some value or makes things a little bit easier, I think that’s one challenge. Then I think the other is, as I’m taking on a bigger portfolio of projects, just trying to figure out how to better balance that and try to get out of the details that I don’t need to be as involved in and relinquishing control is really hard, especially when you’re less familiar with the work. I’m going through that right now, personally.

Ben Aston:

Nice. As you do that, I mean, you’re taking on your projects, you’re looking at a portfolio of projects, what is in your toolkit right now? What do you use to manage the different workstreams and the projects themselves?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, so I have spend plans that I set up for each of the projects and I think that once I get that together, that at least gives me a sigh of relief because I can understand what parameters I’m dealing with, in terms of budget. I think that’s the first thing I would do, apart from meeting the people, which I already talked about. Then, I think the next thing is sitting down and really reading through all of the big project documents, the contract documents, the charter, the scope statement, just to make sure I’m starting to familiarize myself with the work. Then, really doing a lot of listening, sitting in calls, and not being the one to talk and to run the show as much, but to try to take a backseat and let the project run its course, but be available to direct it to the way that it needs to go.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. Cool. In terms of software tools that you use, what’s your favorite software to use to manage projects right now?

Sarah Hoban:

Oh, I’m obsessed with Microsoft Planner.

Ben Aston:

Okay.

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, I guess I’m not necessarily tied with Planner specifically, but just the idea of the Kanban board tool has been huge. That’s been a really great way to help me see across a portfolio of projects, what I’ve got going on, it helps me plan my day and understand the priorities, so I’m not running around scattered, even though sometimes it feels like that, to try to just get a better handle on how everything is going on, and also get my Junior PMs visibility into everything that’s going on too.

Ben Aston:

So you’re just using that yourself to manage the projects or you’re getting your team to use the tool too?

Sarah Hoban:

The teams are using it as well, yes.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, cool. Is there anything else that you’ve found recently that’s making your life more awesome? I mean, you talked about Microsoft Planner, any other tools or hacks that you’ve discovered?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, I think Planner’s the big one for me. I think the other thing that I’ve tried to do is put a little bit more of a boundary around some of my time, so making sure that I’m carving out, even though I’ve a got a lot going on, carving out time for me so that I can come back and be refreshed at work and be able to be there for my team. I don’t know about a hack, but time management, or trying to improve it is a continuous effort.

Ben Aston:

What do you do? How do you recharge and get yourself disconnected from the grind of the projects?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, so twice a week after work, I leave work at 4:00 and go to the gym, and that’s sacred time. Then, if I need to come back online later, I do, but I’m out of there. Then, I also try to workout two mornings a week. I vary it, some days I’m in early, some days I leave early, but I’ll compensate on the other end. That’s hugely important. If I give that up, I’m all over the place.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, cool. You’ve got your own blog, sarahhoban.com, which is inspiring other project managers, but where do you go to get inspiration and to develop personally?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, that’s a really good question. I read a lot [inaudible 00:08:56] project manager. I really enjoy the Trello blog too. Girl’s Guide to PM is great. I read a couple of them on a frequent basis. I read a lot of Fast Company articles and I read a lot of books about productivity, which I know sounds a little nerdy, but that’s what helps me unwind a little bit, sad to say. Right now, I’m reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which I know is a classic, and I’m not even a quarter of the way through it, but I love it. It’s already really good, so I highly recommend it.

Ben Aston:

And you’re now highly effective?

Sarah Hoban:

I’m still in the phase of what is [inaudible 00:09:34] to be highly effective, so so far I’m feeling good, like okay [inaudible 00:09:37], I got it.

Ben Aston:

Cool. Well, let’s talk about your post, I mean, talking about being effective, your post really is about being effective, in terms of onboarding new team members and making sure that other people around us are as effective as they can be as quickly as possible. In Sarah’s post, she talks about how when we get around to hiring a new team member, the real challenge is getting them up to speed quickly. And in Sarah’s post, which if you haven’t read it yet, take a read. She talks through what to include in an employee handbook, some great examples, and employee handbooks can also be called standard operating procedures, onboarding guides, user manuals, but basically, at the heart of the article is really thinking about operationalizing the onboarding process so it’s effective, it’s efficient, and it’s repeatable.

Let’s go back to the crux of the argument, do we really need to do this? Why should we care about onboarding people?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think there’s multiple reasons for that. I mean, one is you want to make sure that when you bring people on they have a positive experience right from the get-go. I know sometimes that can be the lowest priority on the list, as I talk a little bit about in the article, just because we’ve got a lot of stuff going on and we figure people can figure it out, we did so why can’t they, but I think it’s really important to establish a team culture that shows that you respect and value its members and treat them as people and value their time and want to welcome them as part of the team. I think having a plan to get those people up to speed early is really important.

I never really thought it was that important until I started talking to some more of my folks who had been with the team for six months to a year, and if there was something that happened during the onboarding process that was not ideal, it would come up, it could be the smallest thing that I wouldn’t even think about that somebody would remember, but those first impressions do make an impact, so I think that’s really important.

Then, the second thing I think is for your own sanity because I think a lot of times when people first start, there’s this period where they don’t have a ton going on and there’s a time where you can really capitalize on that to help take care of some of the things on your laundry list or housekeeping list around the office sometimes that it’s good to take advantage of those people’s time to get done, so having that plan in place is really important too.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, definitely. I think first impressions do count so much and so often I think, like you said, those first impressions are made in the first few days. I think sometimes we can think, hey well I had a baptism of fire and so, sink or swim, it’s part of the experience, but I think if we can help people have a good experience and help them feel effective and like they’re able to do something when they start, I think it’s really important.

I think it’s important as well, and we talk about this in your post, but there’s different levels of onboarding. There’s onboarding onto the organization or a agency, and then it drills down from there. There’s that kind of high-level stuff, but then there’s also onto the team, and as we were talking about just now, onto the project itself, and then into the role.

What’s your take on how that onboarding process should work? I mean, you were talking just a minute ago about onboarding onto a project that in terms of when we’re thinking about onboarding holistically, is it always a one size fits all? Or how do you tailor that to make it effective for the onboarding process that you’re trying to do?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, no, I think for the agency or organization level, it’s good if it’s consistent, regardless of the role, or the project, or the team that they’re going to be assigned to because I think that that establishes what the company culture is and how they can find their place into it.

Ben Aston:

Right.

Sarah Hoban:

I think standardization at that level is important, but I do think it should be customized and not necessarily one size fits all once you start to drill down, like you said, into those other aspects, so into the team, every team has a different flavor set of personalities associated with it, and then the project may have different priorities or things that should be focused on as part of the onboarding process, and then finally, the role is obviously going to be very individualistic. I think that’s somewhat up to the new hire to decide, but it’s important to provide that overall structure to help guide them in to what that looks like.

Ben Aston:

So, let’s talk about bad onboarding. I think it’s a funny place to start. I mean, have you had any bad onboarding experience… I guess you’ve been at Booz Allen for a decade, but prior to Booz Allen or within Booz Allen, as we’re talking about onboarding onto teams, projects, and roles, I’m sure you’ve had experiences of that, so what does bad onboarding look like to you?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah and I think everybody knows it when they see it. It’s like you show up and nobody really seems to even remember that you were going to start and there’s not a pen for you, which is okay, you expect there to be some ambiguity, but if there’s… I remember taking internships where it was a surprise that this was my first week, oh yeah right, we have an intern, and then it was like people didn’t quite know what to do with me, so to me that’s definitely a sign of a bad onboarding experience. Then, I think even in the hiring process, making sure that there’s those open lines of communication between the hiring manager, the recruiter, and the prospective hire is important. Then, I think once you start, it’s dropping the person a note to let them know that you’re excited about their first day in advance goes a really long way, as opposed to the opposite, which would be lack of communication and lack of a plan.

Ben Aston:

Yeah and I think sometimes this all goes out the window when it’s a bit of a scramble.

Sarah Hoban:

Oh yeah.

Ben Aston:

And it’s often a scramble when there’s a new project’s come in and we’re trying to rapid descale a team and you bring on people, and I have been guilty of this, where you finally hire someone on Friday, they’re starting on Monday, and then they turn up on Monday and you haven’t even got a computer for them yet and you’re scrambling around in the morning trying to find a desk for them and monitors and a computer and you’re like, this is really, really bad. So yeah, I’ve certainly been guilty of some bad onboarding.

Switching it around in terms of good onboarding, one of the things that we have started doing is putting the onboarding process in to Trello, so there’s a big Kanban board of documents that people can read, in terms of thinking of it as process, like here’s what you do in week one, week two, week three, and putting it all in there so that you can just create a new Trello board for each person and they can follow it along.

Going high level, like what we should include in this board or in this process, what does good onboarding look like to you?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, so I think there are several things. I think one aspect of it is before they start, which we talked about a little bit, but I think once you bring the person on, it’s having some sort of a guide or document in place that it helps you, as the hiring manager, feel less like you’re scrambling before the person starts. Something we started recently doing on my team was we put together this onboarding guide and we had the most recent hire develop it based on their experience, what is the agency information look like, so some of that is captured. It’s a large company, so a lot of that is already being done, but in terms of specifically to our team, what are the things to think about.

We also created a separate guide too for the managers who are going to be on onboarding these people. It was stuff like, oh yeah it’s two weeks before your person starts, don’t forget to order the computer, because like you said, you obviously would forget that and then the person turns up and you don’t have something for them to work on. It’s a checklist for, I think, sanity for the manager and the team that is bringing that person in. I think that’s one aspect of it.

But from the perspective of the new hire, I think it’s feeling welcome and included. We try to do that welcome e-mail before they start. We try to make sure that we have a lunch or a coffee set up, usually a pizza lunch or something so people can come by and do office hours to meet the new person. Usually people can find time for that, even if we don’t have time to do a big, formal lunch outside the office or anything like that, so something casual.

Then, I think it’s a lot about empowering, right? It’s giving them the guide and saying, here go forth and conquer these things. Some of it’s like, read up on the benefits, do this activity to fill out your resume, that kind of stuff, but some of it is like, hey here’s some housekeeping chores we have on the team, you’re here so can you do some of this. It gets them going on actual tasks. It makes them feel like they’re contributing early.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, definitely. I think that empowering people right from the start and giving them the autonomy to say, hey here’s a list of 10 things that you need to do, how you make that happen is totally up to you. Particularly with scheduling meetings, it’s like, here are the 10 people that you should talk to, make it happen. Then, people immediately feel like, okay I’ve got something to do.

I like what you’re saying about having a schedule and I think the onboarding process, there should be a plan for here’s day one, here’s day two, and this is how it plays out to week one, week two, month one, week two so people understand this roadmap of when they’re expected to begin to understand, when they’re expected to begin to contribute. I think that there’s lots of things that we can… We can give them lots of reading to do, but that’s kind of boring, so empowering them to start doing stuff and equipping them to do that, and I think that there’s some really important parts of that. I’m helping them understand project process step-by-step, how do projects work here, what does the project management controls and process, how do we do estimating, scoping. It’s different wherever we go and I think when we can equip people with things like the operational process, tools, how we deal with finances, giving them that overview of how stuff works, and it really sets people up for success and it equips them to start doing stuff quickly, rather than just them totally floating around.

Another thing that’s important as well is giving them things to do when, like a bunch of reading or tasks, like you talked about, those housekeeping things, here are things you can do if you find yourself at a loose end so that people aren’t just sat next to, just scrolling around on Facebook, waiting for you to tell them what to do.

I think that having that plan on company process, on project management, operational process, tools, even things like room booking to conference lines, telling them about the clients, giving them all that do’s and don’ts, having all that information codified is really going to speed up that process of onboarding.

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, absolutely.

Ben Aston:

In terms of doing that then, codifying things like project process, for example, here’s how we do projects, here’s how this thing works, what’s the way that you onboard someone and try and help them understand that because there’s that very high level, here’s how projects work, but then there’s the reality of day to day and the minutiae of detail, how do you onboard people onto your team to do that, to be able to manage and deliver projects?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, I think it’s a work in progress. I think what we’ve found works really well is, like you said, a combination of giving them a lot of information to read, and also giving them some tactical things to begin to do. One thing that I’ve tried to do for my projects is to create a project initiation document, and I think that DPM has a really good post about this too, where’s it’s basically a one to two page overview of all the projects that are part of the team, and this is also something great for the new hire to update as they start to get acclimated to the team and start to meet with people, so it’s being able to read up on those things, understand the overview of the project, and then have conversations with some of the other PMs on the team so that they can learn more about what those folks’ portfolios look like and how that they can best contribute to their project and they can learn a little bit more about the tools that those PMs use.

I don’t think we have any kind of standard tools that are consistent project over project necessarily because a lot of our work is really different. It’s getting into the networking space early on and understanding that the way we do business a lot of the time is getting to know the project managers and pick and choose the elements of their styles that you like and want to adopt for your projects, which is kind of cool. I like the fact that we’re able to be a bit independent in that regard and can tailor our strategies based on what we find is effective for the particular client or project that we’re on.

I think the other thing that we did in the onboarding guide, which I thought was hilarious, but was actually very helpful people told me, so we tend to hire a lot of more introverted personality types, I guess, than someone like myself, and so we had in there literally instructions for how to have a networking meeting, which I just thought was crazy, but people told me it was actually really helpful. It was like, here’s what you should talk about, here’s how you should send the request, here’s how you should have a meeting with them, here’s the types of questions you should ask. People told me it was really helpful to get to know… Especially if you’re someone who’s coming in with minimal work experience, understanding how to get acclimated to the business world, I think that was really helpful for people to see as well.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. I think it’s interesting, isn’t it, it’s often the things… The longer that we’ve been in an organization, the more blind or blinkered we become into our own culture, and so when people join, they’re the best ones to tell us what we’re not telling them as well. I like this idea of giving the new hire the responsibility to evolve the playbook and be asking them those questions, “Hey, what are we missing here? What aren’t we telling you that we’re all taking for granted?” We do take so much for granted. I think the more that we can try and… Sometimes as we go through that process of codifying the culture or unpacking a bit, begin to realize sometimes, hey I wonder why we do always do that thing, should we be doing that, and it can help us evaluate it as well.

In terms of perhaps someone who has never created an onboarding manual or an employee handbook, someone’s beginning next week, they’re thinking about how they can prepare, what’s the single most important thing, I mean, you mentioned the networking advice, but what’s the MVP for you for an employee handbook or the onboarding process?

Sarah Hoban:

Yeah, I think if I had to pick a single thing, I think one general tip, it’s not really a single piece of content to include, but one general tip is not to necessarily have to feel like you’re recreating the wheel when you’re developing this handbook. Basically, if there’s other company policies or information like that that you can link to instead of having to regurgitate, that’s always good. Thinking anything related to, like you talked a little bit about, getting a laptop, or maybe company benefits, or that type of information, pull that in from elsewhere. Then, I think in terms of some of the more tactile stuff, having overviews of each of the different projects that your team is working on, I think information on who the team members are is really important and I think that people tend to overlook that.

We started doing what we call capability cards for our team where everybody writes about their background and interests, it’s kind of like a resume, but it’s in a little bit more of a fun format, and then it also has interesting facts about people too so you can get to know them. Then, the way we make sure that the cards are up to date is that the new hire gets tasked with going out to the team members and asking them to update them, so then that’s how they get to come in contact with each of the team members too in their first week of starting, which is pretty cool.

Finally, I think it’s, this is probably specific to maybe me because I was a former editor, but I always like to make sure that folks are really clear on what our QA and style guide looks like from the get-go because I think one thing that’s really good to get newer people engaged on is doing final reviews of some of our documents because they do bring that fresh perspective and getting a handle for how we write, how we deliver is really good for their education as well.

Ben:

Awesome. Cool. Well Sarah, thank you so much for joining us today and for all your great advice on onboarding and making sure that we do that well.

What do you think? Have you-

Sarah Hoban:

Sure, absolutely. This was a great session.

Ben Aston:

If you’ve had a good experience of onboarding or if you’ve created a great employee handbook, I’d love you to share that with us and tell us what you think makes a good onboarding experience in the comments below.

And if you want to learn more and get ahead in your work, I’d love to invite you to come and join our tribe with DPM membership. Head to thedigitalprojectmanager.com/membership to get access to our Slack team, templates, workshops, office hours, e-books, and more.

And if you like what you heard today, please subscribe. Take a couple minutes to leave us an honest review. We really appreciate it. Until next time, thanks for listening.

Ben Aston

Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of thedigitalprojectmanager.com. I've been in the industry for more than 15 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony.

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