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What to do when you have to onboard yourself

It can be tricky to get off to a good start when you’re responsible for getting yourself acclimated.

What to do when you have to onboard yourself
[Photo: rawpixel]
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You are a couple of weeks into your new job and you have quickly learned there is either no onboarding process or an ineffective one. Your boss was thrilled to see you start on the first day, but you have had very little interaction since. It is unclear what your priorities are or what exactly you should be doing. Your colleagues seem equally busy. Everyone is friendly but there is no road map for what you need to accomplish. And then you recall the company’s HR person saying in the interview process that they needed someone to “really hit the ground running.”

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Now you begin to realize that what they should have said was, “We need someone to figure it out on their own.” What do you do when you are left to onboard yourself? This means to not only understand what tools and information you need to be effective but also how to integrate into company culture.

It is daunting regardless of a face-to-face or virtual environment. This isn’t something that can be done by reading the company intranet pages and department manuals. Successful self-onboarding is dependent on relationships. To cultivate these relationships, you need to meet the right people, who will not only inform you about the work but also shed light on unwritten rules, social norms, and office politics. The faster you understand this, the faster you will add value to your team and feel confident in your job.

Start with your boss

The last thing you want to do is frustrate your new boss by having conversations and scheduling meetings without their guidance and support. When you are new, the best thing to do is build a strong relationship with your manager. Describe what you want to do, which is to essentially work toward integrating yourself into the team and the culture by meeting people and learning about the work.

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Demonstrate respect for your boss by asking their opinion and for recommendations of whom to meet with first. Offer to update them on what you learn. Most bosses will value the initiative you are demonstrating and appreciate the upfront consultation.

Schedule strategic meet and greets

Avoid casting a wide net and meeting with just anyone. Be strategic about it. Begin with your immediate circle or direct team. Get to know them personally, too. You don’t have to be intimate friends. Rather, understanding who people are outside of the office builds trust and connection with each other.

Ask each person to provide you with two names of important people to meet. Ask for people who are good at what they do, well-informed, and respected. They do not need to be managers. Continue to ask for recommendations for people to meet. Patterns will emerge. The same people will be recommended, which means these people have influence in the organization and are likely good people to learn from and know.

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Ask for advice and perspective

In addition to inquiring about responsibilities and work goals, ask for advice and perspective. Everyone appreciates their opinion being considered. Doing this not only gives you valuable information but it is also an effective way to establish rapport. You might consider asking these questions:

  • What has made you successful?
  • What systems and processes are important to master?
  • How do you approach work-life balance?
  • How do departments collaborate and work together?
  • Who are the influencers and decision-makers?
  • How is disagreement or conflict handled?
  • What advice do you have that will help me be successful?

The answers to these questions will give you clues to company culture. You might learn about email and expected response times, how meetings are run, “office hours,” and when everyone is expected to be available, if it tends to be a work environment of silos or if cross-department collaboration is expected and the norm.

Take good notes, summarize, and look for themes. Capture the most helpful advice and keep it front and center to your work. It is easy to forget during the initial months of a new job.

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Deliver quick wins

A surefire way for your boss and team to value your role is to provide a quick win. Big changes are probably not the best approach in the beginning. Most people resist change, especially from a newcomer. Suggesting something big will likely fall flat since you have yet to establish credibility with your new team.

Rather, consider a small contribution that is low cost, high impact, and helps move the team forward. Look for ways to make things easier or faster. It might be taking notes in a meeting, designing a new form, or creating a distribution list.

Be patient

What helps people adapt to a new job and workplace the most is time. It is hard in the beginning, especially at that point when you realize how much you don’t know and need to learn. It is more difficult when you are onboarding yourself through it. However, take stock of your skills, strengths, and experience. You were selected for the position because people believe in your ability to be effective in your role. You can do this.

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It would be great if every organization had a robust onboarding program, but not all do. All is not lost if you are left on your own. By demonstrating initiative, reaching out, asking for advice, delivering small wins, and being patient, you can add value quickly and integrate into your role effectively.


Amy Drader is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique firm dedicated to advancing leadership and team performance. She is a certified coach, designs customized training, and writes frequently about maximizing the workplace experience.