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Reflections on a New Role: 30 Days of Onboarding

As of November 26, I celebrate one month with Zachry Group, an engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firm headquartered in San Antonio, TX. With this first month under my belt, I'm still excited, eager and grateful to be a member of the Zachry Group family. Leaving Southwest Airlines was a tough decision for sure, and I'm glad I stuck to the resolution to make a jump only to an organization that is people-centric as well. I remain a staunch Southwest Customer and fan.


Stepping into an executive position, I have been planful and pointed in developing an onboarding plan to make the best use of my first 90 days. As I reflect on these first 30 days, I'm sharing my approach in the hopes that it is helpful to those taking on new adventures, receiving a promotion or transitioning within your business. I also want to set up Talent Development folks as helpful resources for new executives. You are in a unique position to support new leaders, whether crafting an onboarding plan, supporting their direct leaders with onboarding guidance or providing objective insight. Stepping into a senior leadership position at Southwest several years ago, I wish I had approached that promotion with the same onboarding intention. I recognized several lessons in my current planning that I could have applied at that time. Things like building key relationships and tailoring my influencing style. I think onboarding is just as important for employees who are moving into a new department within the same company or for those newly promoted into leadership positions. An onboarding toolkit is a useful resource for multiple situations.

Onboarding as a First Step in the Employee Lifecycle

"Onboarding is a magic moment when new employees decide to stay engaged or become disengaged," said Amy Hirsh Robinson, principal of the consulting firm The Interchange Group in Los Angeles. "It offers an imprinting window when you can make an impression that stays with new employees for the duration of their careers."*

If you think of an employee's journey with an organization, you can lay it out on an employee lifecycle. My brain pictures a lifecycle as an onboarding line that feeds into a circular shape where all the retention and development activities take place during an employee's tenure with an organization and then another line out of that circular shape for offboarding. I want all the experiences that happen rolling around that circular shape to be positive, so it makes sense to set a bright, positive tone in the early moments before a employee jumps into the mass of work.

There are plenty of great articles and ideas on how to set-up onboarding programs. For this article, I'd like to reflect on an intentional approach the new hire him/herself should take during the onboarding phase. Whether or not an organization offers a robust onboarding program, there are steps we new hires need to take to set-up our early days for success.

For my own new hire journey, I focused on three priorities for the first 30 days in my onboarding plan:

  1. Listen & learn

  2. Make a plan for the first 90 days

  3. Communicate with my boss and team often

Listen & Learn

My goal for the first 30 days was to listen. Listen a lot. Listen to everything. Ask questions. Take a lot of notes. Listen some more.

At the beginning of each week, I reviewed all the notes I took the previous week, summarized thoughts, made notes of follow-up actions needed and added questions to a growing list. Each week my insight about the culture and people unfolded. I learned about strengths to bolster and opportunities for some new thinking. Primarily I built context - context to ask a lot more questions, but pointed in a particular direction, whether about our business model, our customers, technology or how we've approached things in the past.

I'm reading a couple of books on the first 90 days for new executives, and they each encouraged an intentional plan to learn for the first 30 days. What I'm appreciating that I didn't find in the books is that it takes longer than 30 days to really get the lay of the land. Five weeks in and I feel like I'm just beginning to understand what makes the Zachry Group culture tick, how our business lines go to market and the status of things in HR.

Make a Plan for the First 90 Days

Making a plan for the first 90 days has been solid advice from multiple sources. The plan I devised included items such as:

  • Listen & learn priorities

  • Setting expectations with your boss and frequently revisiting them to ensure you're heading in the right direction

  • Communicating early with your team

  • Learning how to best influence in the organization

  • Meeting your peers and partners

As an example, within the listen & learn priority, I targeted especially getting to know the culture and people of Zachry Group. I also wanted to begin understanding the business and customers, and finally, pick up the current state of HR initiatives. I targeted meeting times for one-on-ones with my direct team and peers. I am pretty much eager to meet with anyone who will talk with me about Zachry Group, but to keep to my plan, I prioritized who I should meet with in the first several weeks.

The sharp books for executives on the first 90 days create urgency to have it all figured out and be ready for high-powered decision making within 90 days or you risk an early demise. What I found is that the recommended activities are great, yet near impossible to squeeze into each month's plan. They can also come across as corporate or self-serving, which is not a fit with every organizational culture. For instance, my boss politely gave me permission to take it slow and really get to know Zachry Group and our mission before jumping into decisions and the self-pressure to perform. And you know what? I'm grateful and took her up on the offer. That may be a cultural thing, and it certainly doesn’t mean I'm not paying attention to recommended 90 day actions. I'm simply fitting them to cultural norms and checking in often on expectations.

Communicate with My Boss & Team Often

As part of the first 90 days, I also wanted to be sure to communicate often to both my new team and boss. A skill I've been working to improve is getting thoughts out of my head and shared with the team. So I enter into this new role putting my best communication foot forward. Plus, getting a new VP can be daunting to a team and I wanted to alleviate anxiety and open the door to really get to know folks.

As part of my 90-day plan notes, I incorporated tactics to let folks get to know me a bit and open the door for real conversations. I did the random walk around the cubes to awkwardly introduce myself to folks. I'm not sure if that was annoying or welcome… likely both, but selfishly, I enjoyed meeting people who happened to be in the office at the time. Seeing live faces is a treat these days! Treating communication like a strategic plan helps my brain make it happen. Another thing I'm employing are monthly emails. I write a lot, so I figured why not do that for the team as well. The point is to be intentional with communication. Whatever approach works for you, do that, and do it often.

The Next 30 Days

I'm looking forward to the next 30 days. The Listen & Learn phase will continue, still a priority. We'll also add in some team forming activities with a dab of strategic planning. Communication is an ongoing goal, and I hope I'm setting the right expectations as we roll into month two.


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