Build Soft Skills and Up-to-Speed Training Into Your Onboarding Process

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015).

Ask yourself: What happens when your new young employees walk through the door on day one? How do you leverage those first days and weeks?

You won’t be surprised that my platinum standard for onboarding and up-to-speed training is the Marines’ Boot Camp. For 13 solid weeks, they provide an all-encompassing 24/7 experience in which they take an ordinary human being and transform that person into a Marine: a person with a unique set of self-management skills, critical thinking skills, and people skills—a person so connected to the Marine Corps and its mission and every other marine that this person is now ready to walk into the line of fire, literally, and win battles.

You don’t need obstacle courses and firing ranges. You don’t need to make your newly hired employees do push-ups in the sand in the middle of the night. But take the lesson: What message are you sending employees about standards and expectations for high-priority behaviors from day one?

First, make sure you know exactly what happens with your new hires in the formal orientation, onboarding, and up-to-speed training. Most employers have only a minimal process for welcoming new employees and getting them on board and up to speed. Obviously, some employers are better at this than others. Typically, employers provide a basic introduction to the mission and history of the organization (or not), and employees get the basic facts and figures (or not), meet some of the key players (or not), receive a primer in the policies and paperwork (or not), and maybe some of the rules and traditions (or not).

Second, consider the inevitable hand-off to the hiring manager (maybe that is you) once the official orientation program is complete. That’s where so much of the real onboarding action is going to happen, and that’s exactly where the ball so often is dropped. Don’t drop that ball.

If you want to send the message that those behaviors are truly a high priority, then you have to pay more than lip service. How much of your onboarding and up-to-speed training is dedicated to spelling out performance standards and expectations for those high-priority soft skill behaviors? How much time is dedicated to championing those behaviors and teaching them?

Here’s a pretty simple rule: It should be about half.

As one savvy leader in a successful retail chain put it to me: “For every hour we spend teaching a cashier how to operate the register, we spend at least an hour teaching him or her customer service skills—how to interact with customers and how to solve their problems.”

Of course, it doesn’t have to be half and half. Maybe the best approach is to have a dynamic integrated approach to onboarding and up-to-speed training that is designed in every way to send a powerful message about high standards and expectations for employees’ attitudes and behavior in relation to work.

One of my favorite companies is a rental car company that prides itself on hiring only college graduates for every position, no matter how entry level. They also pride themselves on an onboarding process that not only teaches every new hire the business, but also makes it 1,000 percent clear to new hires exactly what kind of workplace citizenship is expected of every single employee. On top of hours upon hours of training, with computer-based tools, and hands-on coaches, new hires can expect to find themselves out in the parking lot washing cars. Everybody—from the top to the bottom— in this organization is expected to wash cars. Nobody is too important to wash cars. In between washing cars, new hires are expected to study. And study they do because each week they must demonstrate proficiency in a range of subjects, including the company’s computer system, details about the company’s fleet, insurance, reservations, sales, marketing, customer service, billing, administration, problem-solving with everyday situations, corporate philosophy, and on and on. The training materials spell out everything new hires must learn from week to week. And they study every night because —from day one—they are expected to be working, helping out in any way they can, during the day. There are also weekly coaching sessions with a fellow employee—each new hire is assigned a coach. There are tests—at the 30-day mark, 60 days, and 90 days. This impressive program, which the company runs on-the-job in thousands of rental car shops all over the world, teaches new hires not just how to run the business, but also inculcates a powerful sense of the kind of work ethic and commitment the company requires. The results can be seen in every corner of this world-class organization. Their onboarding program is not exactly the Marine Corps Boot Camp, but it is truly profound in its impact.

Of course, onboarding and up-to-speed training needn’t be profound. Let me give you a more mundane example. In one large company that hires a lot of new young engineers, managers and more experienced engineers were increasingly frustrated with some of the work habits of many of their new young engineers, including their e-mail communication habits. A senior director of engineering in this company told me: “When it came to e-mail, they did a bunch of things that drove everybody crazy: They would commit every e-mail “no-no”: red-flag e-mails indiscriminately, cc too many people on e-mails, reply all to the wrong things, fail to change subject lines. But, in particular, they would send lots of short e-mail messages from their handheld devices instead of composing a proper e-mail. We developed a list of do’s and don’ts for e-mail communication and we built in a 30-minute module in orientation.”

How did that work? “Problem solved.”

I have a similar story from a top accounting firm: Managers in this firm had noticed a growing pattern of “poor meeting manners” among new young staff accountants. What are “poor meeting manners”? According to one senior partner: “Poor attendance, late arrival, constantly looking at their devices, lack of preparation, interrupting, going way off topic, making inappropriate comments… I could go on.”

The solution was similar: The firm began explicitly teaching new hires how to prepare for and conduct themselves in meetings. It was so successful, the firm leadership decided to overhaul everybody’s “meeting manners.” As it turned out, it wasn’t just the new associates whose meeting manners were not so great. After they developed the “meeting manners” program, the leadership realized that everybody in the firm could benefit from learning and observing these best practices for meetings. As a result, said the senior partner, “we had a real change in our culture around meetings. People in this firm became religious about following the rules of conduct. Our meetings got much better, and they remain so. It’s a centerpiece of our culture now.”

Gee, maybe that’s mundane and profound at the same time.

Excerpt from “Bridging the Skills Gap: Teaching the Missing Basics to Today’s Young Talent” by Bruce Tulgan (Wiley, September 2015). For more information, visit

Based in New Haven, CT, Bruce Tulgan is a leading expert on young people in the workplace. He is an advisor to business leaders all over the world, the author or coauthor of numerous books, including the classic, “Managing Generation X” (1995); best-seller “It’s Okay to Be the Boss” (2007); “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy’ (2009); “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014); and Bridging the Skills Gap (2015). Since founding management training firm RainmakerThinking in 1993, he has been a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. Follow him on twitter @brucetulgan. He can be reached at

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