Welcome Aboard

How quickly can your new employees become productive members of the team?

One of my clients recently asked for help designing an onboarding program for new hires. This immediately took me back to February 1987 when I arrived at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego to start boot camp. I arrived at the San Diego airport and was met by a no nonsense Marine Sergeant who made it very clear to me that I should get on the bus waiting by the curb, and not speak. Once the bus was full of others like me, the bus drove in complete silence to the Depot. When we stopped, a Drill Instructor yelled (at a volume I had never experienced before that night), “Get off my bus!”

The Marine Corps is justly famous for how they welcome new recruits. They cover every little detail about what it means to become a Marine, beginning with the notorious yellow footprints that tell a recruit where to stand the second they got off the bus that brings them to the Depot. Books have been written and movies made about this transformation. The outcome of this “onboarding experience” is clear though, and it’s worked for many decades. The result is a Marine who understands the culture and history of the Marine Corps, his role in the organization, etc.

Shortly after boot camp graduation I checked in to the Communication & Electronics School at the Marine base in 29 Palms, California. I was anticipating another highly organized reception, with NCOs telling me exactly what was expected of me. To my great surprise (and disappointment), the bus dropped me at the bottom of a hill one morning in late May. Since 29 Palms is in the desert, it was already 100 degrees outside and I was in my Alpha uniform (think of it as a form-fitting coat and tie). I had everything I owned in a seabag, and I had to carry it to the top of the hill and figure out where I was supposed to report in.

When I finally found the check-in office, I was covered in sweat, and was greeted by someone who had been in the Marine Corps just a couple of months longer than me. In our first 30 seconds together he shattered my expectations of what it meant to join a Marine unit – the contrast with my arrival to boot camp was stark to say the least. This one was informal and disorganized, leaving me the impression I had left the NFL (the Recruit Depot) and arrived at a mediocre high school football team (C&E Schools).

I know now my experience was affected greatly by the Reagan era defense build-up. At the time the Marine Corps was growing very quickly and there was a price for that kind of growth. Prioritizing a well-organized recruit training over the reception at C&E Schools made sense in the big picture.

On the individual level though, my contrasting experiences imparted some valuable lessons to me. I had learned first-hand that how a person is brought into an organization deeply affects how they view that organization and how they will perform, especially in the first few months. I carried these thoughts with me for the rest of my career, and they influenced how I welcomed new people into a unit when I got the chance to affect that process.

I think these are the top three lessons I learned:

1. It’s a cliché because it’s true: first impressions count.

The famous Yellow Footprints say, “This is the Marine Corps, you will show discipline. You will stand here with your heels together and your feet at a 45 degree angle until told otherwise.”

2. Establish a common purpose as soon as possible.

Studies repeatedly show that people demonstrate greater intrinsic motivation when they feel a sense of purpose. When that purpose is aligned with their organization’s mission, great things start to happen.

3. Organizational history is your friend.

At boot camp, the Drill Instructors go to great lengths to impart stories about the legends of the Marine Corps, which communicate cultural expectations, values, and ideals. The recruits quickly adopt these stories as their own heritage, and this embrace shapes their actions.

So whether your organization is large or small, these concepts can help you successfully welcome aboard new people, too.

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