The Army’s Onboarding Problem

By: Jordon Swain and MJ Cantrell
Onboarding

The women and men who serve in the US Army usually move every 2 to 3 years.  Each move entails upending lives and joining a new team–a team that is NOT a carbon copy of every other unit in the Army. This has been the way of things for as long as anyone who is currently serving in uniform can remember.  Why is it then that after all this time, the Army doesn’t know how to effectively onboard its people?

Hear us out.  The Army is effective at socializing young men and women into the larger Army organization; basic training and officer commissioning sources help with this.  We are also fairly adept at inprocessing and training our new teammates – taking care of the basic administrative requirements needed to facilitate their ability to get to work and doing the “left seat/right seat rides” needed to get people proficient at their new jobs. Where the Army often falls short, however, is in the intentional onboarding of our personnel every time they begin the process of joining a new unit.  As a result, we miss a HUGE opportunity to address some of the current challenges the Army is facing – just a few of which include SH/SA, extremism, and suicide prevention.

What is onboarding and why is it important?

Onboarding is NOT something our less impressive sister service does when Sailors walk the gangplank onto their new ship. Onboarding is the process of receiving and integrating new personnel in an organization, ensuring they have the skills and knowledge to be effective members of the new team.   Onboarding is different than occupational socialization, which focuses on teaching people the norms of one’s profession.  Onboarding is also more than inprocessing and training; it is more than a “new arrival orientation”, more than an inprocessing checklist that gets completed in the first 5 days, and more than shadowing the person you’re replacing for a week. Effective onboarding typically takes anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.  It begins when a person is identified as a future team member and ends once they have fully integrated into the group and entails a variety of conscious actions that ensure new teammates understand the organization’s mission and culture, are proficient in the skills needed for their specific job and understand all of its requirements, and have established cohesion and trust with other members of their new team.

Onboarding may sound like a lot, especially when you have mission critical requirements competing for your time and attention, but the effort is worth it.  Decades of research reveals that effective onboarding is linked to increased job satisfaction, higher organizational commitment, and lower turnover, as well as higher levels of motivation and performance, and lower levels of stress.  Effective onboarding is also key to building or reinforcing organizational culture. A well-designed onboarding process can strengthen the ethical, inclusive, high-performing environment we want to create in our units.

Given the retention and morale issues the Army is currently experiencing, and the need to build/maintain a healthy organizational culture (e.g., a culture that addresses current SH/SA issues, stamps out extremist views among some in uniform, reduces incidents of suicide, etc.), unit leaders should examine their onboarding practices.  Effective onboarding has the potential to help address a multitude of issues Army leaders are currently facing; it can help create and promulgate the kind of organizational culture the Army’s units need to be their best.

So what’s the Army’s problem?

Don’t get us wrong.  Some units DO onboard effectively.  And the Army DOES have certain critical elements in place that can help effectively onboard new personnel (e.g., gains and losses rosters, the sponsorship program, post-level reception & integration efforts, initial counseling requirement, etc.). So what’s the Army’s issue? 

The main problem we see for the Army in the realm of onboarding is a lack of a holistic understanding of the process at the unit level- with many viewing the existing systems or requirements as disparate, unrelated steps instead of components that must be synchronized and integrated at their level.  Some of this stems from a lack of awareness of what a comprehensive onboarding program should entail.  This primary problem is exacerbated when people assume onboarding related tasks “are in the S1’s lane” or are “NCO business.”  While we don’t want to get into recommendation yet – we do want to make it clear that onboarding is “leader business.”

The second problem is that many units rely almost entirely on the Army’s prescribed sponsorship program and their local post’s reception & integration efforts – incorrectly assuming that these two (disconnected) efforts will accomplish the outcomes of effective onboarding.  If executed correctly, these programs are helpful, but they do not comprise all of the elements of an effective onboarding program.  We say “if executed correctly” because sponsorship is often “pencil whipped” while some installation reception and integration programs are less polished and comprehensive than others (ever hear of incoming soldiers being left at an airport 60 miles from their new duty station because no one knew they were arriving or because the duty driver wasn’t where he/she was supposed to be? Ever hear of a new arrival being left alone in the barracks on their first weekend at a new unit without knowing who to contact for help?  We have).

The third issue we see is that effective onboarding must continue once new arrivals are released to their unit of assignment, but often these onboarding tasks are poorly designed, aren’t executed properly, or simply aren’t executed at all.  Let us elaborate.  Many units have battalion or company in-processing checklists that focus on administrative tasks.  Frequently, these checklists are outdated – not having been updated in years or synchronized with other onboarding efforts that occurred during reception and integration at the post level.  Some organizations also have left seat/right seat transitions, but many are rushed and haphazard – as outgoing teammates try to clear post and prepare to move while also training their replacement.

Finally, initial counseling, a key element of an effective onboarding process, does not always occur, or focuses solely on work related tasks and doesn’t focus on some of the organizational culture components indicative of the best onboarding approaches.

So what can we do?

For leaders looking to reap the benefits that an effective onboard program can produce, we have some recommendations.

  1. Take inventory of existing onboarding practices and programs. Familiarize yourself with the onboarding related actions your installation and organization currently have in place. You might start this inventory by examining onboarding as a three phase process.
  2. Pre-arrival. What is being done to help onboard people before they arrive to their new unit?
  3. What does the day of arrival typically look like?
  4. Post arrival. What events or practices are in place that can help onboard your new teammate during the first 5 days?  The first 30 days?  The first 60 days?

Taking stock of what actions are taken, what information is relayed, and what impressions are conveyed is a good starting point to build from.

  1. Establish your onboarding goal(s). Clarify your goals for your onboarding program. Do you just want new arrivals to learn how to do their job quickly?  Is there a culture shift you’re trying to accomplish?  You need to know what you hope to accomplish with your onboarding program before you can implement new or adjust existing elements in the program.  You also need to ensure you communicate these goals to everyone involved in the onboarding process!
  2. Assess current practices and programs. Now that you’ve taken stock of what actions and activities are occurring and you know what your onboarding goals are, you can assess the existing practices and programs and determine if they need to be adjusted. Seek out honest feedback from those who have gone through the existing onboarding process. This step can’t be rushed and shouldn’t rely just on the opinions of a few.
  3. Identify solutions and missing components. After assessing existing onboarding practices and programs, you can identify any gaps or issues and design solutions to address those issues. At this point, you should also look for any missing pieces.  For example, maybe your unit doesn’t currently have the senior officer and NCO give a “welcome briefing” to every new arrival.  Or maybe you do, but it doesn’t include a command or leadership philosophy or culture deck
  4. Establish validation plan/criteria. Everyone onboards, but how do you know when they are complete? Just going through the process doesn’t necessarily mean that each person is going to “fully mission capable” or complete.  Some may need longer to complete left/seat right seat rides to become proficient in their new roles.  Perhaps some had family that were delayed in arriving so integrating them into other aspects of the organizational culture wasn’t complete as anticipated.  Think about what standard/criteria should be met to be considered “complete.”
  5. Determine how you will assess your program. Before going further in your onboarding efforts, you should consider how you’re going to assess your program. You may think you’ve designed a great system, but what you think isn’t necessarily important. Determining if the process you design meets the goals you outlined is what you need to focus on. Thinking about what to ask and when to ask it and how you will use that information is important to do before you implement your new process.
  6. Implement the new process. Now you can put your plan into action. Provide feedback to those responsible for elements of the process that are outside of your control.  Implement any new practices you identified as necessary.  Ensure you share your vision with everyone involved so that they understand their role in the larger scheme of things.
  7. Assess the new process. This is an important, continuous step. You need to continually assess the elements and outcomes of your onboarding program. Are the gains rosters accurate?  Are appropriate sponsors being assigned? Are sponsors being given the information they need to execute their roles? Are leaders present at key points, or are they delegating responsibility to others who might not be placing the proper emphasis on onboarding? Are you seeking feedback from new arrivals?  Their significant others? Are you spot-checking initial counseling.  And, perhaps more important, are those goals you established in step #2 being realized?

The steps outlined above should help you create a coherent, integrated, and effective onboarding approach.

Before concluding, we’d like to share a few “best practices” we’ve seen in some of the more effective onboarding programs that you might consider as you develop/assess/refine yours.

  • Unit website/Social media. Unit websites and social media pages with information designed to communicate specific messages to incoming personnel. Showcase the elements of your culture you want associated with your organization and ensure to include current contact information so newcomers know how to get in touch with their new team.
  • Welcome packets. Consider sending a welcome packet to new arrivals a few weeks prior to their arrival that includes things like an intentionally crafted unit history, unit patches, and perhaps the unit t-shirt.  This packet could also contain a long-range calendar for planning, local school and lodging info, and contact information to help make the transition process proceed smoothly.
  • Selective sponsor assignment. Sponsors shouldn’t always be the person the new arrival will be replacing. Sponsors are not only conduits to information incoming personnel may want, they’re also role models. Ensure you choose men and women you know will represent your unit well.  You may consider training your sponsors since many personnel might not have good sponsor experiences to draw on and may not know what actions they should take to fulfill their role.
  • Command team/Senior officer and NCO presence. Effective onboarding requires leader involvement.  This can take the form of leader in-briefs or office calls with section OICs/NCOICs. Newcomers need to meet their leaders soon after arriving.  This communicates to them that they are valued and allows leaders to directly influence perception and behavior. 
  • Culture deck. Many high-performing organizations consciously shape their culture by using culture decks to describe expectations and norms. These can be included in welcome packets and/or leader in-briefs. 
  • Incorporation of storytelling. Storytelling can communicate expected behaviors and shape culture. Select stories might be included when reviewing culture decks or something you include in your unit history or ask sponsors to recount. 
  • Efficient checklists. Effective programs often use updated checklists that do not duplicate post-level requirements, that remove outdated or unnecessary items, and that ensure points of contact listed on the checklist understand their roles.  How many times have you gone to a “stop” on a checklist and the person simply puts their initials on the paper without any real action being taken?  What does this communicate to the person who is onboarding about the process?
  • Solid “day 0” plan.  First impressions matter.  Great onboarding programs make new arrivals feel valued by having a detailed, well-organized schedule for people on their first day with the organization.
  • Initial counseling guidance. Initial counseling can be integrated into the onboarding process – it can emphasize elements from the culture deck and not just job-specific expectations and goals.
  • “Hails”.  Many units hail their new personnel and their families, but are they timely?  Welcoming someone to the unit 3 months after they arrive probably doesn’t send the message you want. Think about the intent of your unit’s hails – is it something for officers and senior NCOs to get dressed up for and go out with their spouses, or is it something for everyone in the unit to attend in order to welcome new arrivals to the team?  Plan accordingly.

Now we know what you’re thinking – this is all good in theory, but the reality is that personnel moves in the Army are not always set in stone.  We get it.  Things like EFMP issues, injuries, by name requests, and last-minute decisions sometimes result in unanticipated arrivals or personnel getting diverted to other stations or units.  But issues like these are not the norm.  The vast majority of your new teammates will arrive on a predictable schedule and deserve to go through a coherent, structured onboarding process. 

We’d also like to point out that the above “best practices” do not constitute the only solutions to implementing an effective onboarding process.  Leaders should innovate where opportunities exist.  Perhaps someone can create an app for phones that facilitates inprocessing (checklists that can be updated with maps/directions around post, info on the resources available on post, etc.).  Maybe unit leaders can use video chat technology to reach out to incoming personnel before they arrive to run Q&A sessions and begin the onboarding process in advance – reducing the stress that comes with trying to pack in a lot of information in the first 4-5 days after arriving at a new unit.  Leaders should not be afraid to innovate in this realm – and we’re confident junior officers can help lead the way!

Conclusion

In general, the Army doesn’t onboard its people very well.  It has several practices in place that should be part of an effective onboarding program, but onboarding is more than the disjointed execution of sponsorship, “left seat right seat rides,” and inprocessing checklists.  Effective onboarding needs to be a coherent process with command emphasis.  If done properly, onboarding can reduce Soldier stress, increase commitment and performance, and promulgate the inclusive, high-performance culture units need to be their best.  We hope the advice we offer in this article helps you develop an onboarding process that can help your teams operate more effectively.

Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that onboarding is not reserved just for those in uniform.  Our Department of the Army Civilians (DACs) should be included in our onboarding programs.  YOU CANNOT EXPECT CPAC TO EFFECTIVELY EXECUTE THIS REQUIREMENT FOR YOU! It doesn’t matter if these civilian teammates served in uniform previously or not.  If they are joining your unit, they should go through the same onboarding process as their uniformed teammates.

———

Jordon Swain is an active duty Lieutenant Colonel and the Director of the Center for Junior Officers.  He holds a Ph.D. in Organizations and Management from Yale University and a MBA from the Wharton School.  LTC Swain has published on multiple topics related to leadership and leader development and has learned a lot about onboarding from both positive and negative experiences.

Captain MJ Cantrell is an active-duty Army officer currently serving as a cavalry squadron S2 at Fort Carson, Colorado.  MJ commissioned from the US Military Academy at West Point and received a master’s degree from the War Studies Dept of King’s College, London. She’s learned about onboarding by doing it poorly and watching others do it better. MJ is a CJO Leadership Fellow.