Product Matters Series: Onboarding

6 Expert Tips for Onboarding Product Talent

In the first event of our Product Matters series, we addressed ways to attract, court, and hire top product managers. This time around, we address how to keep that talent. 

First impressions matter. Fierce competition for product talent in the Bay Area means that interviews are a two-way evaluation; you interview candidates, and they interview you, too. At Robert Walters, we know how to help businesses make a good first impression. It’s what you do from there that makes or breaks employee retention.

What is the best way to increase employee retention? According to a study conducted by Glassdoor, “organizations with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82%”. As obvious as it may seem, some companies forget the importance of those “early days”, prioritizing processes and paperwork over acclimation, goal-setting, and engagement.

The second event in our Product Matters series was led by host Adam Marchick, CEO and founder of Alpine.AI, later acquired by HeadSpace Inc, and current Executive in Residence at The Chernin Group. During the event, we addressed how to onboard PMs to maximize buy-in and productivity. Hear how top Bay Area leaders address these 6 burning questions in their businesses:

  1. What 4 things should be addressed when bringing someone on for a new product role?
  2. What is a good “first project”?
  3. How do you give more junior product talent structure in an unstructured environment?
  4. How do you keep people engaged?
  5. How do you keep employees motivated once they’re onboarded?
  6. What are activities that improve team cohesion without seeming forced?

1. What 4 things should be addressed when bringing someone on for a new product role?

        1. Buy-In

Employer branding is essential for drawing in top talent, and creating the “buy-in” that makes a new employee stay. A new employee will get a “crayon drawing” of a company during the interview process, but the onboarding process is an opportunity to show them an oil painting, complete with the artists’ vision, details about the abandoned sketch underneath, and the vision that inspired the artist in the first place

        2. Company Culture

“So many times, especially as a CEO, the temptation is to hire someone because there’s a burning need. They make the mistake of getting them on a new project without considering the fact that if people don’t actually enjoy working together, things break quickly,” says Adam. 

Ensure new team members receive a warm welcome from the existing team, whether that be a dedicated happy hour, a swag bag of company gear, or an invite to an exclusive Slack channel.

        3. Value

What does your organization value? Make a point to define the company’s core values, and define your strategic intentions for the new PM.

“Does the company value hitting numbers? Or elegance of product? How about product uptime? It’s essential that this is obvious to new starters so they know where to put their focus,” explains Adam.

        4. Contribution

“When someone was onboarding I would figure out a discrete project, expecting them to take it from start to finish as quickly as possible. The message is that “your job is much bigger”, but, for the next 30 days, this is what you're doing. It might feel constraining, but it gave that person the ability to feel like they're contributing, which sets them off on the right path,” says Adam.

2. What is a good first project?

“The first thing a new person is going to use to grade the success of the company is the decision making process,” says Adam. 

“Outline your OKRs for the quarter, and explain how they fit into the company's goals for the year. The actual project is less important than the new PM seeing how the project fits into the greater whole. Changing the company direction every two weeks is not a good way to make a new PM feel secure.”

“Sometimes what’s helpful is giving the new PM a project where they don't need to know a lot of background. A Christmas sale is fair because it’s fairly isolated, or maybe a project that nobody knows anything about, like switching to a fulfillment vendor that nobody has worked with before, if you work in ecommerce,” adds Jeff Tam, Director of Product Management and Engineering at Atomic.

3. How do you give more junior product talent structure in an unstructured environment?

When a junior PM is transitioning to a startup environment, they may feel lost in an environment that lacks strict processes or structure. 

Nathalie Criou, Vice President of Products at Squelch, suggests that “new PMs should be introduced to key players in the company. Getting to know key players over coffee or something that's less work-driven will help them get comfortable with understanding their responsibilities,” says Nathalie Criou, Vice President of Products at Squelch. 

“Pair junior PMs with a senior PM that you feel has the instincts that are not yet there for more junior PMs--even if it's just shadowing them and going to some of their meetings,” adds Michael Thompson, Head of Product and UX at CareZone.

4. How do you keep people engaged?

Enthusiasm conveyed by a founder or CEO is hugely important for bringing teams together and keeping them engaged.

“The Friday afternoon meeting every two weeks was a critical part of the Kool-Aid process for us, where at the end of it, people were fired up to keep going. You need to make sure that those Friday meetings are part of the company rhythm. If not, or if your CEO is not particularly inspiring, the Product team should speak at the meeting,” explains Adam.

“You're not trying to speak for the CEO, but as the product leader, you have a unique perspective, and you want to set the tone and give them an honest but exciting reminder about the mission of the company,” he adds.

5. How do you keep employees motivated once they’re onboarded?

“Engagement is the rhythm that onboarding sets the tone from,” says Adam. If you’ve already set up a new PM for success in the onboarding process, then they’re much more likely to remain engaged with the company.

“Management should understand people as individuals, not just necessarily what they're doing today in this job, or the problem they’re solving today. It’s equally important to know where that person came from, what their background is, what their challenges are, and their aspirations for the future in order to identify when they need to switch projects,” says Kjell Bronder, previously Senior Product Manager at Apple.

It’s also important to identify symptoms of burnout in your employees, a topic that Robert Walters will be exploring in-depth in the upcoming months. 

“A lot of people, especially in Silicon Valley, experience burnout. When you have an understanding of what people do during their time off-time (i.e. play in a band, mountain climbing, whatever it is), then over the next few months, if you check in with them and notice that they haven't done those things at all--that’s the canary in the coal mine,” he adds.

6. What are activities that improve team cohesion without seeming forced?

Expecting a team to bond during a mandatory drum-circle isn’t the way to create team cohesion.    

“We started doing group QA, which actually ended up being a really awesome team building exercise because it gave engineers an opportunity to understand the product better. It also helps to demystify the work that QA and PMs are actually doing,”says Natalie Klapper, previously Head of Product at Plethora.

Don’t forget to keep inclusivity in mind when planning activities and avoid centering them around alcohol. Try a kombucha tasting, ranking them in order from best to worst. Another attendee suggested sharing stories about weekend trips or travel during time off, which is a great way to engage team members in building a rapport.

Books recommended during discussion:

INSPIRED: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love- Marty Cagan

The Effective Executive- Peter F, Drucker

The Lean Product Playbook: How to Innovate with Minimum Viable Products and Rapid Customer Feedback- Dan Olsen

Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity- Kim Scott

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