Onboarding Theory: What Are the 3 Development Cycles of Proper Onboarding?

In my last post, I made the bold claim that the goal of onboarding is to turn each new hire into a master, mentor, and advocate.

How did I arrive at that conclusion? To understand what makes for a good onboarding program, my team here at Greenhouse went through the exercise of recording all of the events and efforts that occur throughout an employee’s onboarding experience. We then put these events and efforts in chronological order, and from there, I grouped similar efforts into categories—revealing 3 distinct areas of focus occurring in parallel: personal growth, group immersion, and company embodiment.

The emphasis at any moment in time could be very different, and all of those moments came together to form a fully ramped employee who had become a master, mentor, and advocate.

By thinking about onboarding as three distinct efforts occurring at the same time—specifically, personal growth, group immersion, and company embodiment—it becomes easier to break up the work required to develop each and understand where there are gaps in your current onboarding program. This methodology also allows you to better survey your new hires to determine how far each cycle has developed.

Let’s explore each of these 3 areas of focus and what it takes to develop each one.

1. Personal growth

Personal growth is the maturation of the skills and knowledge needed to excel in one’s current role. If you were to plot over time the concentrations of effort required to develop a new hire’s personal growth, you would create a graph that took the shape of an adoption curve, an almost normal distribution curve. There would be a small amount of effort in the beginning, then that effort would grow quickly, and then it would taper off once the new hire has become comfortable and confident in their role and in the company.

The three phases of this cycle are:

  1. Foundation: This phase sets up the employee’s environment and process to grow in their role. The foundation phase includes events such as getting introduced and trained on role-specific tools, establishing expectations and goals, and setting up one’s work environment (desk, office, computer, applications, etc).

  2. Growth: The second phase is the growth phase. This phase is where employees become familiar with their tools, accomplish their first few wins, and start streamlining their workflow. The employee is now comfortable in their work environment and role, and they can begin to master it.

  3. Mastery: Mastery, the final phase, finishes once the employee has achieved proficiency of their role, participated in performance evaluations, and has made a meaningful impact to the company. The employee is now fully productive and amplifying the business.

2. Group immersion

Group immersion is the evolution from a new member to a leader within the group. This cycle’s graph of effort takes the shape of an inverted bell curve. It starts out with significant effort, quickly simmers, and then climbs again.

The three stages of this cycle are:

  1. Introduction: The first phase, the introduction phase, starts by establishing the employee’s place within the organization. This includes learning who to contact to get the very basics done, participating in ice-breakers, meeting colleagues for the first time (while attempting to remember their names), learning how to navigate the organization, and having a first out-of-work social activity.

  2. Immersion: The immersion phase is where relationships form (with managers, mentors, other employees). Also, employees begin to be comfortable within the organization, and they create trust and respect among their colleagues. Employees will experience their first problematic situation and have their first vent session with another employee about a shared experience.

  3. Representation: Employees are no longer the “new people” in this phase. They feel comfortable being a leader or a follower. Ideally, this phase is where an employee will gain the confidence to guide a newer employee through the previous two phases.

3. Company embodiment

Company embodiment is a new hire’s adoption of the company’s ideas, beliefs, and rituals. This cycle has a gradual build-up through the first two phases and then swiftly accelerates in the last phase.

The three phases of this cycle are:

  1. Understanding: The understanding phase starts as soon as an employee learns about the organization and attempts to articulate what it is and what it does to friends, family, and themselves. The employee will also begin to have moments of excitement about their involvement with this organization and their work.

  2. Embracing: The second phase of company embodiment transitions the employee to start representing the company externally. This representation could take the form of handing out a business card to a new acquaintance or simply wearing the company branded t-shirt. Employees will continue to refine how they describe the company and start to understand what the company actually does and believes.

  3. Embodying: This phase is crucial as it showcases just how committed employees are to the organization. Will they decide to refer a friend to the company? Will they want to develop their career there? These are questions they will have answers to by the end of this phase.

One last thing

A common question then becomes, how long do each of these cycles take? As I’m sure you can see, each of these cycles do not take the same amount of time to complete. Some new hires will complete their onboarding within three months and others will take upwards of a year. The time to completion is dependent on the individual’s role, the maturity of the onboarding program, the new hire’s level of competency when joining, the stage of the company, and the complexity of the role and organization as a whole. We will go into these factors in my next post in this series on Onboarding Theory. Stay tuned!

[Thank you to Laurie Ruettimann, Sesame Mish, and Andrew Hubbs for reading drafts of this post].

For more information on building out a successful onboarding program, be sure to grab a copy of our eBook, New Hire Onboarding Guide. Simply click the button below!

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Dane Hurtubise1

Dane Hurtubise is VP of New Initiatives at Greenhouse. Prior to Greenhouse, Dane was the CEO and co-founder of Parklet (acquired by Greenhouse), which addressed the multifaceted challenges inherent in onboarding and retaining employees. He has a bachelor's degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Connect with Dane on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Company Culture