How to effectively self onboard

A sign saying 'boarding assistance'

You started with a new company. Congrats!

It’s all very new & exciting, right? The new faces, the offices, the swag. Everyone is smiling and helpful and you can’t wait to find out how well the kitchen is equipped (well… the answer to this one should have come up as part of your due diligence during the hiring process – if you’re a pro, that is :-)).

To make it feel even more like a honeymoon, it’s very likely that on the first few days, there are almost no expectations from you. Overall – it’s a great and exciting period.

Once your computer is working and you have access to all relevant software and tools then the official onboarding process will probably take place.

Now, you could fully rely on the company’s onboarding process to get you into the business, but in this post I’ll try to convince you that this is not enough and you’d probably want to take full ownership of this process right from the start.

Let’s dive in.

 

The official onboarding process

All the companies I’ve worked for, and those I were exposed to, have an onboarding process for new employees. It makes total sense, of course.

However, not all onboarding processes were designed with the same level of thought and attention to detail and for the specific role of the new employee.

It means that by the end of the onboarding process you should know more about the new company you joined, but the question is how much more, and whether this new knowledge will actually help you perform your role better.

The best onboarding process I was part of

The best onboarding process I’ve experienced included a quite long series of videos and tutorials that walked me through the market, the problem and the product that is being built in this company I just joined. I was also provided with a list of people I should meet and the order I should meet with them.

Additionally – I was seated in a designated place for new hires, and nobody outside of that ‘onboarding department’ could assign me any tasks until I completed my onboarding (not even my boss).

I was also assigned with a buddy to help me navigate my first days.

I think that’s pretty much the maximum you can hope for in terms of onboarding.

However, most companies can’t afford to invest (or simply won’t invest) so much in their onboarding process for various reasons. 

Most companies will provide you with a machine to work on, initial swag, the IT contact to reach out to in case you’re having hardware/software issues and a list of people you should meet.

Some will ask you to join several group sessions that are scheduled for newcomers from time to time. And yes, nowadays, most companies will also assign you a buddy. 

Compared to the onboarding I just described above – it leaves a lot to be desired.

 

But even with the amazing onboarding I had – I soon found out that this is not enough for me to be able to start working right away.

 

Why is that?

At the end of the day, such a comprehensive onboarding can help you understand the market better and the main products of the company. It can also provide you with knowledge about the culture and policies of the company and its vision and mission.

However, what it can’t tell you is:

  1. The current status of the products you’ll be in charge of. Are they released already? If so – how were they received? If not released yet – what’s their status and what are the main challenges?
  2. The team you’ll be working with. As I noted several times in the past – communication is a key component of the product manager’s work. Who are your main colleagues? What’s the dynamics between the various stakeholders? Any existing tensions you should be familiar with?
  3. The current processes. Yes, the official onboarding can outline the ideal processes (as the company envisions it). However, from my experience, there is usually a gap between the envisioned processes to how things are actually being done in the specific team you’re going to be part of.
  4. The company’s overall progress towards its business goals and OKRs and how it’s perceived by its customers, users and investors.

 

These things are crucial for product managers if they aim to be great in what they do.

If you think you can rely on your buddy and your boss – then I recommend lowering your expectations. 

Both your buddy and your boss have their hands full of tasks. Even with the best intentions – they can’t give you all the attention you might need. 

Hence, it means that at the end of the day – you must take full ownership & accountability on your onboarding process and make sure you onboard yourself in a manner that will provide you with whatever you need in order to be successful in your new workplace.

Fine, so where do I start?

You should start, of course, with the official onboarding. However, from my experience – the official onboarding is quite fragmented and should leave you a lot of ‘openings’ in your calendar in the first weeks.

So here is your first true decision – are you going to take things ‘easy’ or you aim to start delivering value as fast as possible?

The answer to this question depends much on your character and your career goals.

Personally, I like to jump straight into the water and arrange my time so I can start delivering value as fast as possible. It’s who I am, but it also leaves a very good initial impression (and god knows initial impression is hard to change).

However, you really don’t have to do that. You can start slowly by acquiring knowledge and getting acquainted until you feel confident enough to step up your pace.

 

Whether you decided to start slow or strong your overall initial goals (ordered by priority) are:

  1. Get to know your team and key people
  2. Get to know the products you own, their status and the current challenges
  3. Get to know the market, your customers and the current market penetration plan

 

Your team

You know the drill by now… your team consists of the people who are directly reporting to you, the engineering team (dev + QA + devOps + data scientists) who are assigned to you and the other internal stakeholders you’re going to work with closely – product analysts, product designers, product marketing, sales, support and CS. Yeah – my definition of ‘team’ is quite inclusive. Everyone who you’re going to talk to or meet on a daily or weekly basis.

Your manager, if done their homework, has already prepared for you a list of people you must meet. Some workplaces are even putting such meetings on your calendar on your behalf (I’m not a fan of this, as I like to control my time… but fine, the intention is good).

Whether the following people are on the list or not – you must meet them in person, and get acquainted:

  1. The engineering group or team leader you’re going to work with closely.
  2. The people who report to you (if you are a product leader) 
  3. Key people you’re going to work with – your close peers in marketing, sales, CS and support and anyone else I’ve missed.

 

The goals of these meetings are pretty obvious, but I’ll list them here just to make sure you don’t miss anything:

  1. Getting to know the person behind the role. You need to know this person very well as you’re going to spend some time together.
  2. ‘Marking your territory’ and agreeing on processes. Many people have their own beliefs as to what’s the best way ‘to skin a cat’. If your beliefs are close – this should be a very convenient conversation. If your beliefs are quite different – then it may be a more challenging conversation as you’ll need to bridge over these gaps. Better to sort this out in such a personal conversation and not in front of the team… This may require more than one meeting though.
  3. Understanding the current challenges they experience with the day-2-day work and the product and how you can help in solving those.
  4. Agreeing on a cadence of meetings (weekly, monthly, etc..) to stay in touch

 

Now, I didn’t mention the most important persona in your new workplace and that’s your boss. I don’t see him/her as part of your direct team, but don’t be confused for a second – your boss is the most important relationship in your workplace. But this deserves a post of its own.

Anyway, I do expect your boss to set up such a meeting with you where they’ll be setting expectations and agree with you on a cadence of meetings. This is why you should only take the initiative of setting such a meeting if your boss is failing to do so for some reason.

 

There are other people you can and should meet. If there is an opportunity and openness I’d strongly advise to meet the CEO and the other executives. It will significantly improve your understanding of the business and how they perceive it.

 

Last, before we move on to discuss the product – your team/group consists of many individuals. Many of them would be more than happy to help you. You should therefore treat everyone as a ‘buddy’ unless they tell you to ‘f#$k off’ (in a polite or explicit way). Just make sure you don’t abuse that. After all – they are not you ‘official’ buddies. I’d specifically look for individuals who are treated as ‘mavens’ by others, and spend some time with them. With proper flattering to their ego – you can get information which is gold.

 

Your product

You are a product manager so the first thing to figure out is what’s your exact product ownership. Ideally, you should have asked and received an answer prior to signing the contract with this company, but sometimes we may not have this information before we actually start working because either:

  1. We didn’t ask 
  2. The hiring manager didn’t know (there were several options)
  3. Things have changed in the last minute

But anyway – now you are here, and you really need to know 🙂

So ask your boss as soon as possible about your product ownership. If the product is big – it could be that the ownership is divided between several product managers. In that case, understand what are the boundaries of your ownership.

Truly knowing your product means that:

  1. You know the ‘why’ behind the product. Why it was built and what pain it’s solving.
  2. You know whether you’re serving customers or users (or both) and what are the main personas.
  3. You understand the solution (the what) that was built and how it solves the pain.
  4. What are gaps and how far the product is from a product market fit.

 

Now, of course there is a huge depth to each of the bullets above. During the onboarding you should look for the initial answers to these bullets, while understanding that you are just scratching the surface. A true understanding of your product will take time, unless it’s quite basic (and in that case – you may look to grow your product ownership).

The market

Understanding the market you’re operating in is very crucial to the success of your product. In the scope of the onboarding there are several knowledge inputs you must acquire:

  1. Your product’s market share and growth rate
  2. How your product is positioning itself in the market
  3. An overview of the competitive landscape and certainly the top 3 competitors. You don’t need to know them intimately at this stage, just to understand briefly how they are different and how they position themselves compared to your product. What do they do better than your product? What’s your product’s competitive edge compared to the other existing solutions?
  4. The total addressable market with the current product and with the envisioned roadmap.
  5. The current go to market strategy and mainly how your company acquires new customers/users for its product.

 

What would be a reasonable time for completing the onboarding?

If you’ve taken the fast lane then two weeks at most. If you’re taking a slower pace then 4-5 weeks. More than that and you risk being perceived as ‘lazy’.

Completing it fast and starting delivering value ahead of schedule will get you noticed, in a very positive way. So consider that as well.

To summarize

When starting in a new place you can’t rely on the official onboarding (though you need to complete it, of course). You need to understand that you are the owner of this process, and it’s mainly up to you to determine how fast you can start delivering value.

If you focus on the team, the product and the market as I noted above you can complete the onboarding in a timely manner, become part of the team and start moving the needle. It will also leave a great first impression.

 

If you found this post/series useful – please let me know in the comments. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.

 

Thank you, and until next time 🙂

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