Jumpstart Sessions: How We Onboard at UpBuild

On a new team member’s first day, the worst move that you could make would be to gesture broadly over your office floor plan and say,

Welcome to the team! Now go, and…be valuable to the company.

I don’t think that anyone would ever do that. At least, I hope not, because you’d be shooting everyone (you, your new hire, the receiving team, and/or your whole company) in the foot and setting up your hiring investment to fail. Gladly, almost no companies actually do that.

Instead, we have this wonderful thing called “onboarding” — teaching an incoming team member everything they need to know and giving them all the tools they need to be successful. It could be called “orientation” or something else entirely, but the idea is the same and it’s super duper important.

But onboarding is a whole lot easier said than done. Every company has their own way to onboard and while there are hundreds of books and blog posts on the subject, there’s no one size fits all. In fact, there’s rarely a “one size fits a few dozen”. I’ve worked at places that had highly formalized onboarding led by a complex HR department and I’ve managed teams where I’d more-often-than-not have to block out an entire week to do nothing but onboard one new person.

Onboarding at UpBuild, Alpha

Onboarding was admittedly a bit of a mess throughout Year One of UpBuild. Well, I shouldn’t be that critical of how we did things; it was fine and everything worked out fairly well, but we had some serious optimization to do. Lucky for us, it just so happens that optimization is our favorite thing in the world!

The Big Problem with Onboarding

The big problem with our onboarding process (and with the processes at many other companies) is that the task of onboarding was the responsibility of a few people. At UpBuild, that was me and Ruth — at other places I’ve been, it was “Human Resources” or an assigned buddy.

The immediate issue (which you could easily guess, even if you’re not familiar with organizational operations) is that this model places an outsized responsibility for the new team member’s success in the hands of a select few. Onboarding one person at a time, taking the better part of a week (or more) to do so, can be manageable with one hire but what about when you begin having multiple hires? It’s alright if you have two new folks starting at the same time, but what about when you have multiple new hires in a quarter? Block out another two weeks for onboarding even though you did that last month? Doesn’t sound great. At UpBuild, Ruth and I have arguably the most on our calendars at any given time, so putting the entire onboarding responsibility on the team members with the least availability (us) is clearly non-ideal.

The other big problem that became clear over time but that wasn’t so obvious in the beginning is that having a small group managing onboarding can connect incoming people with the wrong authorities (or, more gently, the incorrect authorities for the topic at hand). By that, I mean that the people managing onboarding are not always the subject matter experts who should be shaping a new hire’s formative experiences with the company. In addition to teaching new hires about the culture of the company and the ins and outs of working here, we also had to teach them about everything we did — from keyword research to advanced analytics audits. While Ruth and I both plug in on client projects on a regular basis, neither of us has a full load of clients, so our day-to-day is pretty different from that of our Marketing Strategists. Having Ruth and me teach an incoming team member everything is likely not in their best interest (and think about how problematic this becomes when onboarding is owned by an HR department that’s removed from the day-to-day work).

Recording Onboarding Sessions. Yeah, We Know

Note that pre-recorded onboarding videos are a viable option for some companies, but the work we do evolves at such a fast pace that a video training for “What UpBuild deliverable X is and how we do it” would need to be updated at least every three months. We realized this route would be untenable for us.

Jumpstart Sessions

The solution that we came up with at UpBuild was “Jumpstart Sessions”. It’s a simple idea; have new hires set up times to learn everything they need to learn from the true subject matter experts.

Principles of Jumpstart Sessions

  1. The “Curriculum” can change depending on role, but session count ranges from one to two dozen sessions.
  2. Each session topic has one or two subject matter experts who own the content for the session.
  3. Incoming team members are responsible for getting each session on the calendar.
  4. The Jumpstart period may take up to a month.

For our intents and purposes, having the incoming team members schedule each session serves a very important function. Sure, it’s great that no one in leadership has to worry about scheduling things, but this also tests and teaches an important skill — communicating with a group of people to schedule calendar time! This skill is vital in an agency setting, so Jumpstart Sessions actually become practice for that.

Another reason why we’ve gone with a comparatively informal system is that this more closely resembles the day-to-day at UpBuild. Kind of like why I don’t talk to job candidates during the interview process.

As a distributed company working on highly customized and innovative technical marketing strategies, our work is very self-directed and flexible; it has to be. So we realized that it would be a disservice if we gave incoming team members a rigidly scheduled and compartmentalized first few weeks. Doing so would set the expectation (at least subconsciously) that each week thereafter would proceed similarly (it won’t) and leave new team members to figure out on their own that working here is actually very different.

Working at UpBuild is very goal-focused and we evaluate everything based on output, not on checking boxes or agonizing over how much time was spent doing what. At the start of any client engagement or of any given week, we define loose objectives and then work in whatever way we need to in order to accomplish that. Jumpstart Sessions, therefore, bear a close resemblance to our average day-in-the-life. We set the goal for a new team member to learn and become familiar with X, Y, and Z, and the way in which they set out to accomplish that goal is largely in their hands.

The ultimate goal of Jumpstart Sessions is to allow new UpBuild team members to self-onboard by scheduling time with key team members to learn what they need to know. We provide direction by giving a list of topics along with the subject matter experts and the rest is up to the incoming team member(s). Here’s an example of what that could look like. It’s a mix of deliverable-focused topics, UpBuild meta information, and client-specific downloads.

Jumpstart Sessions — Week 1

  • How Client Account Pods Work with Laura
  • “Client Whispering” & Account Management with Ruth
  • Keyword Research & Mapping with Alex
  • SEO Audits with Laura and Ruth

Jumpstart Sessions — Week 2

  • Metadata with Will
  • On-Page Content Optimization with Alex
  • Engagement Management & Being a Builder with Mike & Ruth
  • Instant Answers with Will & Alex
  • SEO Landing Page Strategies with Alex & Ruth
  • Analytics Strategies with Laura
  • UpBuild Discovery Process with Mike

Jumpstart Sessions — Week 3

  • Semantic SEO Strategies with Will
  • Analytics Implementations with Ruth & Mike
  • Track Everything with Google Tag Manager with Ruth
  • Authority Building Strategies with Laura & Ruth
  • Conversion Rate Optimization with Laura & Ruth
  • Analytics Audits with Alex & Mike

The sessions are somewhat listed in priority order [based on what we expect the incoming team members will encounter first], yet they don’t need to be sequential.

Results So Far

We rolled out this program in the spring and have onboarded three Builders using Jumpstart Sessions so far. Speaking for myself, Jumpstarts not only saved me a ton of time but it gave me the confidence that incoming team members weren’t learning my version of (for example) Keyword Research; they were getting the overview and insights from someone who had owned that deliverable in that same month (if not the same week). I, on the other hand, haven’t personally done some deliverables in over a year.

It’s also been wonderful in that we’re able to divvy up the responsibility for onboarding. Since the task of onboarding doesn’t rest on the shoulders of a few people, no one becomes a bottleneck. If one session doesn’t work on one day, the incoming team member can schedule something else before it and keep moving forward.

Testimonials from Team Members

How do Jumpstart Sessions compare to what folks experience during onboarding elsewhere?

The Jumpstart Sessions were a welcome change from other experiences I’ve had in the past. I appreciated how we were slowly being introduced to different deliverables and gained an understanding of how the company worked. I also appreciated how I became familiar with different team members during the sessions–it helped me get to know everyone! It also garnered a sense of team value, and that we weren’t just being thrown into the deep end to figure stuff out.

Every Jumpstart was presented differently, depending on the topic and the person who was presenting the topic. Some were more in depth and some were general overviews. I came away becoming more confident in my ability to learn each deliverable, and know where to start this learning. It also gives you the right questions you need in order to learn.

When everything is new, you have questions about absolutely everything. But when you get that general base of knowledge, you can start becoming familiar in a quicker amount of time. I appreciated these sessions, and I think they are a great way to be welcomed into a company and its culture.

— Michelle Polk, Technical Marketing Specialist at UpBuild

Having jumpstart sessions as a part of the onboarding process was really helpful to me. Spending time each week in these sessions got me more acquainted with my team as individuals. In addition, I was able to learn a lot more about the type of work we do for clients, and how UpBuild functions internally (our processes and procedures).

Compared to previous places I’ve worked, this was a big improvement to the onboarding process. Though the jumpstart session could be more refined, they really helped me to get quickly acquainted with the team and up to speed on how to do my job well.

— Ashley Fungone, Technical Marketing Specialist

Conclusions & Going Forward

Not only have Jumpstart Sessions made onboarding at UpBuild possible in a sustainable way, they’ve actually been a welcomed change of pace for folks!

One common thread throughout the feedback I didn’t expect was that Jumpstarts helped new team members get to know everyone. Since we’re a remote team, we don’t find ourselves in the same lunch room all that often; Jumpstart Sessions have turned out to be a great alternative for those semi-informal connections that you get in a brick-and-mortar office.*

  • Especially over someone’s first few weeks; after that, we hope pair calls can fill that need.

Of course, the elephant in the room — or Slack Channel — is that Jumpstart Sessions still need work. We have the opportunity to refine and optimize how we use this new tool in our toolbelt.

Modifications I could see us playing with in the future:

  • Having more structure around each session.
  • Having more advanced sessions for senior team members (deliverable-focused sessions have been fairly general until this point).
  • Having incoming team members lead a session of their own to teach us something new.
  • Adding more sessions on “soft topics” (those that don’t relate to tactics or deliverables), productivity, and/or culture.

As with a lot of these “How/Why We Do X at UpBuild” posts, the goal isn’t to show off our perfect solution; it’s to show everyone the kinds of things we’re thinking about and what we’re optimizing. It’s all a work in progress and “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late“.

 

Written by
Mike founded UpBuild in 2015 and served as its CEO for seven years, before passing the torch to Ruth Burr Reedy. Mike remains with the company today as Head of Business Operations.

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