Onboarding Learnings Through Rapid Growth and Multiple Acquisitions

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Onboarding new employees is not a new topic, and here at INTERSECT we’ve experimented and implemented many flavours of onboarding strategies. Being a technology service company, our people are our greatest assets, and a good first impression is a catalyst to both employee engagement and delivery efficiency.

However, there is a small plot twist in this story that makes our journey a bit unique. We were a boutique shop in Toronto prior to 2015 with 40 employees. In 2016, we were acquired and grew our headcount by 41 (102% growth!). Just as the dust settled, we found ourselves being acquired again at the end of 2018, and grew our headcount by another 58 (72% growth). While some acquisitions intentionally restructure the leadership or consequently change the culture, INTERSECT fought (and continues to fight) to preserve our identity while navigating the challenges of corporate integration and rapid growth demands.

The past 3 years have really tested our onboarding process as we saw rapid growth in our headcount year to year. Here is what we learned.

Scenario 1 – Keeping our history alive

We are who we are from the stories and history of our past – the war stories, the weird situations, the funny moments. Those who have visited us may recall our office-wide clapping, our immense love for horses, and our recurring Rebecca Black Friday playlist. These origin stories are typically undocumented fragments in our timeline. We’ve heard from many that have worked and currently work here that we have a little magic in our culture, the magic that glues us together, motivates us forward, and propels us upwards. As we grow, we fear that forgetting these stories will change us, will erase our history, and will cause us to lose that magic. Here is how we have tried to keep our history alive:

We implemented an optional bi-weekly Ask Me Anything (AMA) forum for anyone to ask seniors leaders unstructured questions, and we answer them campfire style. Topics so far have varied from technology comparisons, industry trends, delivery process, company history, and case study anecdotes to name a few. This initiative kept the communication door open to the leadership team despite any hierarchy or busy calendars. We welcomed variety, we embraced repetition, we heard laughs, we saw raised eyebrows, some took notes, some reacted in awe, but everyone always left these AMA sessions with a smile and eagerness to retell their learnings to others.

We also reframed much of our onboarding material into stories aimed to explain the “Why” behind our tools and process, while moving “What” and the “How” into wikis as reference material. Why have we adopted this template? Why is the process automated here but manual there? Why do we love this particular tool? We learned that there is no avoidance of repetition when information is vast and data is distributed. What really makes onboarding memorable is storytelling: stories of embarrassing naming conventions, stories of surprising data trends, stories of rage-driven automation. Our brain is hardwired to remember stories, and hearing individuals recount these stories to the next person has so far been the best way to keep our legacy alive organically.

Scenario 2 – Adapting to frequent process changes

As a technology service company, we work with a vast variety of clients and projects. We are known for being adaptive to change, and we take pride in how we embrace change. Our value proposition to new clients often highlights how “our process can bend, but not break”. Nonetheless, we felt the breaking points when the frequent changes got coupled with rapid headcount growth a.k.a. The Moving Target problem. The gaps became apparent when the individuals who are advocates of process evolution can no longer be staffed on every project. Detail documentation is also seemingly impossible to be caught up to the latest process changes or experiments. We noticed that when projects were starting, transitioning, launching differently, learned lessons from the past started surfacing up again as repeated mistakes, and clients were receiving inconsistent explanations of our roles’ value propositions. This got amplified even more when we had to swap resources in and out (something we can never avoid as a service company). Upon reflection, we pinpointed one root cause being that we never had one source of truth for our company delivery process.

We set out a goal to document our baseline process, specifically to inform and educate why certain changes are breaking and which pillars hold us together organizationally. The intent is to allow teams to continue to embrace and adapt to change, by giving them a framework for making decisions on change, and not sending anyone a recipe to follow. There were a few considerations:

  • We did not want to create any bottlenecks to process innovation nor did we want to prevent or slow-down change
  • Knowing it’s a baseline, we wanted the solution to have a long shelf life, the information to be stable and would resonate with new hires of all types (senior, junior, co-ops, engineering, product, management etc.)
  • Since the issue is magnified by moving targets (both change and growth), we wanted anything new we add to our onboarding process be low friction to adopt, and the knowledge to be easily shareable.
  • We netted out at a new type of onboarding we named Process Onboarding. The contents are high level and focussed around our baseline delivery process. In the form of a deck, each slide strives to answer the question of “why should I care” or “frequently asked questions by new hires” on a given topic. Creating a high impact deck that delivers information quickly on a wide variety of topics was no doubt a challenge, but using the approach of “guide instead of prescribe” helped us keep the content as informative as possible.

Scenario 3 – Finding ways to create impact for your audience 

There are plenty of HR procedures and policies that are not the most compelling to the audience. Nonetheless, to be compliant they must be completed. At INTERSECT, we try to find ways to put the “Intersect” spin on things to create more impact for our employees. You have to understand your audience and what makes them tick – what may work best for one culture, won’t work best for all.

In our case, what may work for a 6,000 person company, may not always work best for a 180 employee company. We learned this early on by integrating with our parent company. Some things they had in place and new initiatives that were rolled out, did not always work as seamlessly with our team. An example of this is when a company-wide initiative was rolled out by our parent company to ensure that the organization understood what each division was responsible for and how it fits within the overall mission of the organization. While it was a valuable initiative, we needed to make sure the approach taken resonated with our headcount to make it impactful for our employees. Instead of doing an hour-long slideshow presentation, we got creative and made a humorous 20 minute video of our CEOs in front of a green screen explaining the different divisions of the company. The approach we took was quick and compelling. 

Another example can be seen when employees read and acknowledge our policies. Although it isn’t everyone’s favourite thing to do, we added a little jest to a dull situation. When asking an employee to sign a policy we added phrases to introduce the policy they were about to review and sign-off on. 

Some examples:

  • Information Handling and exchange guidelines – This protection of sensitive information does not include your Fortnite strategies.
  • Remote Access Policy – You ain’t gotta go to work, work, work, work, work, work, work, but you gotta do the work, work, work, work, work, work, work.
  • Password Policy – Password123, 123456789 and qwerty are absolutely terrible passwords. Don’t do it. But do learn more about protecting your secrets with this policy.

We figured we weren’t able to make the content of the policy any easier to get through, so why not add some lightheartedness to it? You can’t change the policy, but you can change the approach. Starting with onboarding and continuing the same narrative throughout the entire employees lifecycle, these minor tweaks kept the overall narrative consistent. 

Scenario 4 – Addressing information overload

As we grow and mature our process, our “Day One” onboarding has turned into information overload for new hires. “Important information” also seems to double with every acquisition. The day is packed full of IT setup, policies review, buddy introduction, team lunch, department onboarding, project overview, and codebase setup. The people conducting each of these streams will always strive to provide information important and relevant within their context, but without the unbiased lens being a new hire, their importance quickly becomes forgotten or misunderstood. We quickly realized that not all information must be delivered on the first day for the highest impact. We also recognized that not all information should be delivered the same way for the message to resonate. Here is what we learned:

  • IT and HR onboarding should be tactical. Information here is actionable tasks. It’s important for these tasks to be concise as they often need to be completed within the first couple of days.
  • Department onboarding should remain high level, philosophical, and core value focussed. We experimented with adding origin stories to promote inclusion. The details of specific processes are left for the wiki as reference points and for future deep dive sessions when the individual needs to apply the knowledge.
  • Project onboarding should be contextual, positive, and inspiring (Who is the client and their business? What problem are we trying to solve for them?). We created company-wide account narratives that anyone on a project team can retell to another. We defined successful project onboarding to mean you are excited to dive in, regardless if it means you’re excited to help put out a fire or excited to be on board a smooth sailing ship. It’s a tricky but important balance to be clear on the status of the project (red or green) but also inspires confidence that we are working on something greater than us together.

One of our 2019 company goals was to “make onboarding incredible”. The above are just some highlighted scenarios we have since tackled head-on, but measuring success can be tricky. Currently, we keep both a direct (survey-based) and indirect (observation-based) feedback loop. It’s been about six months since we piloted many of these initiatives, and we have since felt the positive shifts through qualitative data points such as engagement, excitement, clarity, inclusion, velocity etc. One thing is for sure, our company is not the same as it was six months ago or six years ago, and it most definitely will not be the same six weeks from now or six quarters into the future. With that mindset, we are prepared to continuously iterate, we embrace future changes that will challenge us, and we anticipate what we will learn tomorrow. Horse! 🐴