Team Building

Coaching the New Hire

Companies will often hire a business coach for long-term employees in order to prepare them for their next challenges within the organization. Fewer organizations consider coaching recent hires, even though it’s an optimal time to engage a coach’s skills.

Joining a new company is a high-stress time for most people. A new company has a new set of rules, a different corporate culture, and a completely different cast of characters. Often a new hire has been recruited from a good job where she was recognized for her contribution within the firm and had a certain degree of job security; change feels scary. Even if a new hire was not thrilled with his past job and was actively looking for a change, there is comfort with “the devil you know.” While some companies have a formal onboarding program to help ease a new hire into the role, many, including most start-ups, do not. Even those companies that have a formal orientation process tend to focus on explaining the policies and procedures contained in the employee handbook rather than addressing what a new hire wants to know: details about the specific role, the makeup of the team, the resources available, and the immediate performance expectations. Often the hiring manager is too busy to properly welcome a new hire and, even if one does not run into The Office‘s Michael Scott (“Listen, why don’t we just leave that position vacant? Truth be told, I think I thrive under the lack of accountability”) or Dwight Schrute (“Hazing is a fun way to show a new employee that she is not welcome or liked”), peers and subordinates do not always have the time or inclination to help acclimatize a new team member. This can all lead to stress for a new employee.

While a moderate level of stress is good for productivity, the Yerkes-Dodson model shown below illustrates that too much stress has a negative effect on the ability to perform the type of complex tasks expected of a mid- to high-level employee.



Stress in the workplace consists of relationship tension (the tension that comes from working with others: call it office politics) and the tension of the task itself (managing complexity.) Typically, when an employee has a high level of task stress in their job, a good manager can help offset it by easing relationship tension. In the days before a tight deadline, a manager might bring in lunch, give more praise, or help offload less critical tasks so the employee’s tension levels allow for peak performance (the top of the Yerkes-Dodson curve) without tipping over into burnout. With a new employee, however, both the task and the relationship areas are stressed as she comes up to speed on the job requirements and tries to integrate into the organization.

There is a real risk that a new employee will be too stressed to be productive, which can lead to increased relationship tension with a hiring manager who expected the new employee to immediately improve results. The mismatch in expectations can cause conflict and lead to an early exit. According to PwC Saratoga’s Human Capital Effectiveness Report 2013/14, 22% of hires, or one in five employees, leave within their first year. When a new hire does not work out, there is an associated financial loss of half to five times that employee’s salary (comprised of search fees, potential negligent hiring suits, wasted training costs, wasted interview time, and productivity loss from disruption and negative morale.) Plus, the company is still faced with the skills gap they were trying to address in the first place

A coach can be brought in early in the process to help an employee integrate into the new organization. A coach can work as a bridge between the new employee and their team, ironing out any integration pains before they grow into major problems. A coach has dedicated time to spend with the new hire and does not have the bias or agenda of a peer. A coach has the skills to help an employee with task stress (through teaching critical thinking, project management and process improvement skills) and relationship stress (through improving a new hire’s relationships with his manager, team and customers.) There is no perfect hire but a business coach can ensure that a good hire can integrate as quickly into a company as possible and begin to focus on their role and results.

Lessons from The Lego Movie

The LEGO Movie is a delight for kids but it is equally delightful for adults (unless you like a lot of screaming in the background; try to see it in one of those 18+ mini-theatres where they show opera simulcasts and serve beer at your seat.) For all of the post-modernists in the room, it’s delightfully meta and highly ironic (an anti-business movie produced by a US$4 billion toy company – snort.) The script is tight, the voice acting is great, and there are lots of pop culture references spanning the last three decades. It’s good fun.

The movie also offers a number of lessons for business leaders about leadership, teamwork, and the important balance between vision and execution. ** Mild spoilers ahead if you are serious about watching the film for plot. **



The movie’s protagonist is Emmett, the prototypical Everyhuman. Emmett is driven by rules and routine, literally following his manual, Instructions to Fit In, Have Everybody Like You, and Always be Happy. He is indistinguishable from anyone else: he goes to work (he is, of course, a builder), watches the water cooler favourite “Where are My Pants?” on TV, and sings along to the number one song, Everything is Awesome. I haven’t seen that much cheerful uniformity since I interviewed for a job with a packaged goods company after completing my business degree.

One day at work, he accidently finds the Piece of Resistance that, according to a prophesy, marks him as The Special: “the most talented, most interesting, most special person in the universe.” He is the one who is to lead a group of Master Builders to overthrow Lord Business, who has threatened to destroy the world. The Master Builders are charged with coming up with creative solutions to life’s problems. The problem is, Emmett’s life has been so prescribed that he not use to thinking. Note this exchange with Master Builder Vetruvius and Lucy.

Vitruvius: We are entering your mind.

Emmet: What?

Lucy: I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought.

Emmet: That’s not true. Introducing, the double decker couch so everyone could watch TV together and be buddies.

Lucy: That’s literally the dumbest thing I ever heard.

Vitruvius: Let me handle this. That idea is just the worst.

The Master Builders “including but not limited to Superman, Wonder Woman, The Mermaid, Green Ninja, 1980s Something Space Guy, Michelangelo [the painter], Michelangelo [the teenage mutant ninja turtle], and the 2002 NBA All-Stars” are life’s visionaries. They are creative, natural leaders to whom people look in times of rapid change. I fully expected that Emmett would rise to the role and become some sort of LEGO-building Steve Jobs. But that’s where the movie surprises and is closer to business reality. While the Master Builders are smart and creative, they are not able to outwit Lord Business who seems one step ahead of them in anticipating their weapons. The group is in despair as they think that Emmett lacks the building savvy to save them. Emmett, however, is not to be underestimated.

Emmett: What does he [Lord Business] never expect Master Builders to do? … Follow instructions. You are so creative…but you don’t work together.

How often in business does a visionary swoop in to save the day, overlooking the work of long-term employees who have been living and breathing the company’s issues for years. So sure are visionaries in their own abilities, that sometimes they will not partner with other senior members of the team. Good leaders and managers bring about results through people. And a leader needs other people to execute her ideas, no matter how brilliant she might be. Unless people are engaged and committed to the plan (it helps if they are part of the planning process) they will not be excited about bringing any ideas to fruition. While cool ideas might get the media excited, a more effective business strategy might be to have highly engaged workers focus on something a little more tried and true. (1980s spaceship anyone?)

Beware The Borg

Once upon a time there was a group of like-minded people who worked for a major bank. They worked well together, went out for lunch together often, and even their mannerisms were alike. Other groups remarked on their cohesiveness, referring to them (in their less-kind moments) as The Borg, in reference to a group of Cyborgs on Star Trek who, basically, shared a brain.

For a long time, theirs was the group of choice. They had more deal flow, they got bigger bonuses, and they seemed to have so much darned fun. Even the most misanthropic among us looked upon The Borg with a degree of envy, as they seemed to lack the competition and infighting that plagued the other groups.

The last time I’d been struck by such cohesive gang was when I was interviewing with the consumer packaged goods companies right out of school. At one such company, I was taken out for lunch by a happy bunch who spent the hour telling me how they loved working together so much that they also chose to be friends outside of work. They ate lunch together, played ultimate frisbee, and a number of them had even decided to get married. If one of the senior category managers had not waxed on at length about his personal dream of seeing the entire population in diapers (even though his category was baby goods, it still put me off) I might have signed on.

Back at The Borg, trouble was brewing, however. While all of that togetherness made for a tight-knit and happy group, it was also contributing to some fairly significant groupthink.  Groupthink is more likely to occur among groups of people who — no surprise here — think the same way. When there is little diversity of thought, there tends to be little conflict, and people tend to get along really, really well. It makes for a lovely place to work until the wheels fall off. In the case of The Borg, the wheels fell off in a fairly significant way. The group was involved in asset securitization and packaging up, among other things, CDOs. The Borg had morphed into The Big Short.

Now we are not blaming that one little group for the entire financial market collapse of 2008, but a closed culture can often result in blind spots. It is interesting that whenever there is a highly dysfunctional entity, people often remark on how strong the corporate culture was (think of Tyco’s culture of pushing the envelope or the investment banking culture of attempting to offload risk.) Yes-men are rewarded, naysayers are not tolerated, and the very thing that can make companies strong — clear goals and an aligned workforce — can also derail them. Dissent and conflict are not comfortable, but they are necessary for organizations that want to think through issues critically. It’s good to have a few foxes around to point out when the emperor has no clothes.

I’m not suggesting that we fill our companies with iconoclasts — a clear, cohesive culture is an effective way of getting things done — but I am suggesting that whenever we see evidence of The Borg forming, it makes sense to add in some new blood, to recruit a different type of candidate, or to shuffle the  deck chairs a bit.