The Importance of Onboarding in Creating a Learning Environment

By: Gregory A. Janicik

The world of work is changing rapidly, and organizations can’t expect to rely on outdated ways to build capabilities to keep up. In particular, formal learning, training, and development approaches have failed to help shift skills and behavior to create new ways of working. As a result, organizations turn to hiring leaders from the outside to build new capabilities. While bringing in new leaders can have an impact on an organization, there is still a need to intentionally shift how work gets done by having employees learn on the job. Thus, ideally, organizations are bringing in new talent and fostering learning at all levels.

In our experience helping to transition new leaders, we’ve found that most organizations miss opportunities to leverage the onboarding experience to foster or build a learning environment. Certainly, the arrival of a new leader—whether in a business or function—is an opportunity to question how work gets done within the team or the department. In many situations, a new leader assimilation discussion is conducted whereby the existing team members have an opportunity to learn about the new leader. In those discussions, the new leader also learns about the team and the organization. However, this exercise doesn’t necessarily foster or build a learning environment for the team. Embedding learning at the team level where employees and new leaders are engaged in pulling new knowledge into their work will create the conditions required for creating a learning environment. How can an organization leverage the arrival of a new leader to accelerate the establishment of a real learning environment?

Two concrete ideas come to mind:

1.    Formal brainstorming time

New leaders have the opportunity to institute formal time on the calendar, either weekly or bi-weekly, to bring their teams together to challenge the status quo. Tenured employees likely know where the function or business is falling behind. Encouraging dialogue on what changes are needed and what new knowledge is needed opens the notion that learning is expected and required going forward. However, it can’t be a short-term thing. These brainstorming conversations should continue indefinitely. Over time, discussion on short-term changes begins to transform into continuous opportunities to question, challenge the status quo, and learn.

2.    Encourage the new leader and his/her team to “work out loud”

While formal time is important to question the status quo and create space for learning conversations, the ultimate goal is to get new leaders and their teams to reflect daily on what they’re finding, what’s working, what could be better. New leaders influence the tone of sharing and openness in their teams—support them in doing so. Many new leaders wait the traditional 90 days and then “share” what they’ve learned and what they want to change. Why not do this from day one? However, to avoid being perceived as the new person attacking the past, it’s important for the new leader not to do this in isolation. Specifically, if everyone on his or her team is encouraged to “share” what they’re learning on a daily basis, it becomes less about the leader and more about identifying knowledge gaps and working collectively to close the gaps. The organization can help the new leader by creating tools, leveraging technology to make it easy to record and share these learnings across the team (or function or business). The sharing of these questions and learnings—the “working out loud”—allows a learning environment to form, and new leaders can then strengthen it over time through other mechanisms.

Successful onboarding of new leaders is critical for a variety of reasons. We shouldn’t ignore the opportunity to leverage onboarding to either build or foster the learning environments we know help organizations remain flexible and adaptable in this dynamic world in which we live and work. Taking advantage of formal and informal ways to encourage learning through a new leader’s arrival seems like an easy thing to include when planning for a new leader’s transition and effective onboarding.


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