How to fast track onboarding in family businesses

Tuesday 1 December, 2015 | By: Michael Simonyi (Davidson) | Tags: HR, family business, hiring, culture;

Most of us have been there before – even if you’ve now been in your own business for some years – your first day in a new job.

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And most of us probably experienced the ‘cut and paste’ approach many employers take to bringing new people on board: a tour of the office to meet people whose names quickly become a blur; blocking out time to learn the computer system from the team’s super-user; swathes of documentation to complete to keep the HR team happy…the fun just doesn’t seem to end.

I’m being flippant, of course, and in my experience most businesses do take the task of onboarding new hires seriously, in terms of equipping them to take on the key challenges of their new roles. However, an area that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention, yet is critical to bringing new staff onboard effectively, relates to the people and personalities within a business.

In family businesses, this can be particularly tricky to navigate as it often involves more than just the job. It involves learning the family-based dynamics peculiar to that business, over and above the ‘professional’ challenges associated with being a new employee.

Not sure what I mean? Well, how about:

  • The CEO, managing a business founded by his parents, who feels the weight of expectation to perform while at the same time dealing with his parents’ failing health;
  • The founder’s son-in-law occupying a place in the sales team despite, rather than because of, his ability;
  • The long-time CFO who is the owner’s right-hand person and has the owner’s ear on matters well beyond the finance function, and is virtually family;
  • The owner’s MBA-qualified daughter, ambitious to succeed her father as CEO and frustrated at his inability to see that she’s ready for that transition now?

While that might all sound rather dramatic, issues like these play out in family businesses every day and, intended or not, impact on everyone in an organisation.

Over the course of 12 years in recruiting for family businesses, time and time again I’ve heard the phrase "they weren’t a good culture fit" when someone doesn’t work out. In my experience, in family businesses, that’s often code for "they weren’t educated as to what the environment was, and how to navigate it, which contributed towards them not forming effective, key relationships in the business."

Understanding the specific landscape in which they work and being able to negotiate it effectively, can largely influence how successful a ‘non-family’ employee will be, over and above his or her technical competence. So, how can the onboarding process be tweaked in family businesses to allow for, and mitigate against, the potential pitfalls?

Prepare the ground
As an owner or leader, take responsibility for that new hire before they start. Ensure key staff across the business understand what that new sales manager is expected to deliver, the mandate you’ve given that person in terms of how you expect them to deliver it, and how you expect those key staff to interact with and support the new hire.

Explain the landscape
If it hasn’t happened through the hiring process, a one-on-one to explain ‘how things really get done around here’ is a smart move. Spend time explaining informal networks, the go-to people, the gatekeepers and the folk who know what's happening before it happens.

Assign a buddy
Having someone a new hire can turn to, particularly informally, can be invaluable. Painting the big picture and espousing the vision and values is very important. So is knowing that the veteran sales guy who doesn’t use the CRM properly plays golf every Sunday with the CEO.

When we bring someone new into our businesses, we hope for as short a ramp-up period as possible, and to have that new hire contributing quickly. Understanding the less-than-obvious issues that can impede someone settling in effectively, having a plan to deal with them, and following through on it, gives you a great chance of achieving just that.


Michael is a Senior Consultant in Davidson’s Corporate business. Davidson is an industry leader in Recruitment, Consulting and HR Solutions.

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