BL&T No. 059: Finding Employee Onboarding Inspiration In Motorcycle Training

Company Culture

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"Learning is an ongoing process and doesn’t end when you finish a course."

From "Total Control Motorcycle Training Courses: Student Handbook" [Course]


We're always looking for opportunities to improve employee onboarding at Barrel. Today's iteration is better than last year's and the year's before that. However, the experience of joining the tech team can be vastly different than joining design. In some ways, this is expected and even beneficial. In other ways, we see an opportunity to create consistency. The question is: What experience will help new employees feel fully immersed and integrated into our culture, regardless of their role?

One of the reasons progress has been slow in answering this question is ownership at a company-level. We have leads in every discipline who revisit their onboarding with every new hire. At a company level, Sei-Wook, Co-Founder and COO/President, along with Allison, Team Experience Coordinator, have done an incredible job getting new hires the right equipment and tools to get started on Day 1. While everyone is working to improve the area of onboarding closest to them, we're now looking at how we can level up the experience across the board.

Over the last few months, Sei-Wook has been building out our first-ever PeopleOps team. Along with HR-related responsibilities, this team also includes Talent Acquisition and Resourcing. With PeopleOps leading the charge, the company-wide onboarding experience conversation has been resurfaced and become a topic of discussion among leadership. Allison has also been collecting feedback about onboarding from recent hires which has helped us identify gaps in the process.

Onboarding Themes

To build momentum, we're starting small. Rather than focus on onboarding activities, Sei-Wook led a visioning exercise with all of the discipline leads to imagine what onboarding could look like in the future. Now, we're exploring what we want new employees to get out of onboarding. Here are some themes I've synthesized from a brainstorm among the partners last Wednesday:

The next step is designing a system that will support these themes. In my experience, new employees retain about 10%, maybe 15%, of what they learn during onboarding, especially when it's a series of a one-way presentations. I have no data to support these numbers but when we used to spend a week training new designers on all of our tools, they'd always need another tutorial when it came time to use the tools.

We've since focused more on concepts and culture. Designers get an overview of deliverable types, design philosophy, and ways of working. They spend the first week meeting with each designer one-on-one and at the end of the week, we come together for an ice breaker activity. It's silly, but everyone leaves with a smile and we've seen that go a long way.

Our goal is simply to get designers acquainted with how we collaborate, know who to go to for what, and comfortable enough to ask for help. The daily, weekly, monthly rituals take care of the rest (daily stand-ups, staffing structures, etc). By week two, they're assigned to client work and paired with other designers for oversight. While this has worked well at a discipline-level, I wonder how it could integrate with company-wide onboarding and what elements of the approach could carry over.

Setup & Play

I'll never forget when we lost a promising Junior Designer. I was sad to see them go but grateful for how it inspired to change onboarding. Worried that I was throwing new hires into the work too quickly, I over-indexed on ramping this designer up. I was careful about overwhelming them and made sure they were closely supported at every step. Eventually, they moved on. They weren't feeling challenged.

From this perspective, I've enjoyed the mindset shift when replacing the word onboarding with setup. Onboarding can feel like a long, slow process. Setup implies brevity. Efficiently driving toward a readiness to begin. You setup for a party. You setup your desk to get to work.

Imagine the last time you played a board game for the first time. Before you played, you got setup. You learned the rules, objective, and played a practice round. Then, you went for it. You may have revisited the directions from time-to-time or asked questions to friends who played before but you built and refined your strategy by playing the game again and again. That's where you learned the most.

In essence, the Junior Designer was stuck in never-ending practice mode. They wanted the opportunity to play the game, to learn, to win, to lose. I was onboarding them for months rather than getting them setup to play within a week or two. The latter approach is exactly how I went from gazing at motorcycles from afar to riding one in just four sessions. Talk about setup to play!

Motorcycle Training

As of yesterday, I officially wrapped up my motorcycle training course. After cruising around Brooklyn on a scooter for a few years now, I figured it was time to realize a childhood dream and upgrade to a motorcycle. Props to PA for promoting safety and making the courses free (typically ~$250 in other states).

Training took place over two weeks. On Wednesdays, we got on Zoom and went through a presentation covering the core concepts of riding. Everything from the mental mindset of riding to how to safely make a turn. On Sundays, we put those concepts into practice on what they call the "range." The range is a fancy name for a parking lot. Although there are some improvements I'd make to the course, there were a number of concepts I enjoyed and found myself thinking about how might they apply to employee onboarding.

#1. Lead with Mindset

From the get-go, I appreciated the course's focus on mindset. As we know, riding a motorcycle can be dangerous. Instead of simply highlighting this fact, the course included an entire section on getting in the right mindset to ride. It even touched on the importance of coming to terms with admitting that riding a motorcycle may not be for you once you get on the bike. Sure enough, that's exactly what happened by the end of our first class. Someone threw in the towel. I wonder if the mindset framing helped them find comfort in stepping away.

So much about working at agency (or anywhere for that matter) is mindset. Finding the lessons in failure. Seeing clients as collaborators. I'm curious what opportunities there may be to align with new hires on the mindset for working at Barrel. We currently touch on our maxims but what else can we do to create a mindset shift when a new person joins the team?

#2. Align on Goals

At the start of the entire course and every section (both online and in-person), the instructor started with goals: "This is what we're hoping to achieve today" and "By the end of this section, you should be able to... etc." This framing was helpful in eliminating distraction and keeping me focused on the key concepts. Essentially, knowing the outcome helped me better establish the path to getting there.

When we onboard new folks to the team, how can we be more clear about what we expect each hire to get out of the sessions? I'm sure there's all sorts of questions and thoughts running through their mind as they take in new information. Perhaps clarity on goals could help provide focus.

#3. Make Commitments

One of my favorite parts of the course were a series of commitments we made together. Getting on a motorcycle is a risk, only heightened by driving recklessly and disobeying the rules of the road. To close out each section of the online training, we were asked to make a commitment to ourselves and our loved ones. For each, someone from the class was asked to read them aloud. Each commitment reiterated the core concepts learned in that section.

Like getting in the mindset, there are commitments to working as a team. "I commit to trading judgment for curiosity" comes to mind. Commitments like this are often implied rather than put out in the open. Addressing them during onboarding would not only force acknowledgement but encourage a discussion. Better to remove confusion or address disagreements than assume alignment!

#4. Practice with Support

It's probably no surprise that my favorite part of the training was getting on the bike on Sundays. The excitement of riding far outweighed waking up in the wee hours of the morning to arrive on time. What I found unique about our practice sessions was that they were timed and coordinated between two instructors. It felt efficient while keeping a good rhythm.

Before we got going, we aligned on goals. Once we got to riding, the instructors gave us feedback as we went through the activity. At the end, we turned off our engines and regrouped to answer questions about what we learned.

Sunday sessions not only reinforced the concepts we learned on Wednesday but gave us the opportunity to play the game and find our groove.

I'm not entirely sure how this fits at Barrel yet but I love the idea of getting new hires on client work as early as possible. Perhaps it's a mock project to start. Are new hires put together to accomplish a project in their second week? Once they accomplish that, are they put on a client project with senior reinforcements to make sure they are not alone but have autonomy? The latter is essentially what happens on the design team currently, however, there is opportunity to create more structure there and ensure everyone is learning.

#5. Test Your Knowledge

As expected, the course wrapped up with an assessment. While I already my motorcycle license from my scooter-riding days in NY, passing the course meant getting a license for everyone else. I'm happy to say I passed the course! That just means I know the basics of riding and may save a few bucks on my insurance.

The assessment included a written exam and road test. What I liked about the exam portion is that it wasn't a surprise. Throughout the entire course, there were moments where the instructor engaged the class in review questions, including our time riding on the range. These questions helped reinforce core concepts and create engagement among the group.

Accompanying the course was also a workbook. The workbook included all the details of the course along with the review questions. I found this incredibly helpful to reference both during the course and in my own time studying.

In the end, if riders passed the written exam but not the road test, or vise versa, they could come back to repeat that section of the course. According to the instructors, people who retake the course only get better. They know where they're struggling and prioritize improvement in those development areas.

Despite passing the exam, the instructor let me know where I lost points on the road test. I plan to practice those areas (like quick stopping!) when I get my motorcycle. I wish I knew which questions I got wrong the exam, though.

I love some version of this for onboarding. I imagine a light way to test a new hire's understanding of core concepts throughout onboarding. This could also include other resources like relevant reading, training videos, or a handbook to sit with the material on their own.

At the end of onboarding, why not include an exam and even "road test"? Rather than assume everyone is good to go, an assessment might help identify where the employee needs additional support. Maybe they don't have to go through all the sessions again, but at least the manager and employee would have clarity on development areas. Assessments also opens the door for "graduation" certificates or other fun takeaways!

Going Forward

In a perfect world, motorcycle training would never end. I'd have someone I could check-in with after every ride and ask questions. I'd meet weekly with an instructor to revisit learned concepts and see how I'm improving. Well, the good news is that these requests are all true at Barrel.

What I love about this "setup" mindset is equipping new hires with the tools and concepts to be successful in our culture. If we have all the right rituals in place, the system should reinforce what they've learned and provide coaching every step of the way, a focus for management training.

Interestingly enough, there is an intermediate motorcycle course I can take once I have more mileage under my belt. Then after that, an advanced course. In the Barrel world, maybe there are levels to an employee's journey? After 6 months, they could go through another session to reinforce concepts and learn new ones. And so on.

Looking ahead, I'm eager to collaborate with the team as we continue strengthening employee onboarding. In the meantime, I'm excited for my new new bike to arrive soon and to get some practice in before it gets too cold.

Lessons? When learning to ride a motorcycle, you learn the most by getting on the bike. Similarly, employee onboarding can be more than learning techniques and concepts. The sooner we can get an employee on the bike, the sooner they can put what they've learned to practice. With continued coaching and team reinforcements, we can help them find their groove.

Thought Starter

What was the last onboarding experience that made me feel prepared and eager to get started? What made me feel ready?

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