Project Management Institute

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Customized Onboarding for Project Talent Can Build Knowledge and Stem the Tide of Early Turnover




“With the right people on board, the battle shifts to development and retention.”

—Daniela Tessler, Fast Shop, São Paulo, Brazil

Painstakingly sifting through practitioner CVs or résumés and carefully vetting candidates is a waste of time for organizations if new hires are scanning for the exit as soon as they arrive.

“With the right people on board, the battle shifts to development and retention,” says Daniela Tessler, talent acquisition, development and retention senior manager at electronics retailer Fast Shop, São Paulo, Brazil.

Many organizations seem to have missed the memo. More than 40 percent of U.S. employee turnover happens in the first six months of employment, according to Equifax. Yet that churn rate is far from inevitable: At organizations with a well-structured onboarding program, 69 percent of employees stick around for at least three years, Talent-Wise research shows.

“Many organizations apply the same onboarding process to every new employee, but that means a specific onboarding for project managers is often missing,” says Marcus Glowasz, PMI-ACP, PMP, PgMP, program manager, Credit Suisse, Zurich, Switzerland. That omission means the new project practitioner takes the helm of a project with only the most perfunctory knowledge transfer under his or her belt. “The project managers are expected to be fully inducted afterwards, but what results instead are inconsistencies and inefficiencies that can impact the progress and success of a project,” he says.

An onboarding process tailored to project talent can boost retention and performance. For instance, when Wipro, an Indian global IT support firm, created an onboarding process that played to each new hire's strengths and area of focus, participants were as much as 32 percent less likely to quit, compared with new hires who had traditional, organization-focused onboarding.

At healthcare benefits software provider Benefitfocus, new project managers move through two weeks of carefully customized training. “It includes product classes and system training and then spans into project management-specific topics,” says Tobias Kederer, PMP, project management office director of professional services, Benefitfocus, Charleston, South Carolina, USA. “The project manager onboarding process is consistent, but as we learn what works and what doesn't, we're regularly updating it as well.”

Organizations serious about driving up retention rates should start by rethinking how project talent is brought onboard.


Yes, the organization wants a new hire to be up and running at lightning speed. But onboarding that's rushed—whether it's six days or six weeks—can be a waste of time and resources. When the program is filled with ample coaching, sharing of information and network building, that upfront investment can have major ROI.

At Credit Suisse, new project hires learn about organization-specific frameworks and methodologies through knowledge-transfer platforms. Mr. Glowasz suggests devoting time to studying theory in action, with a software program that guides new hires through a virtual project. “Project simulation tools help get a new project manager more familiar with the project management processes used in an organization by applying them to typical project scenarios,” says Mr. Glowasz.

That hands-on simulation tool can spare the project manager from floundering in the new role and boost his or her sense of empowerment and engagement—all before actual project deliverables are at stake. “There's often a huge amount of information given to the new project manager, which is sometimes impossible to process within a short time,” he says. “It's essential that the onboarding process is not rushed—this is a period not just to receive relevant information but to process and practice as well.”


“It's essential that the onboarding process is not rushed—this is a period not just to receive relevant information but to process and practice as well.”

—Marcus Glowasz, PMI-ACP, PMP, PgMP, Credit Suisse, Zurich, Switzerland


Project managers are often in an unusual position: working closely with cross-functional teams but not necessarily building ties with other project managers as a cohesive department. That can make for a lonely work environment, particularly for a newcomer who might not know where to turn with project-specific questions or scenarios.

Sharing a company directory with photos of each employee or scheduling team lunches are relatively simple ways to foster engagement from the start. Credit Suisse helped curb isolation by fostering an internal community of project and program managers. “They meet on a regular basis to exchange information regarding procedures and best practices,” says Mr. Glowasz.

“Connecting a newly hired project manager with that community from the beginning helps new project managers not only get familiar with specific organizational processes but also better understand the project-specific culture.”


“Building strong relationships is key for new project managers in our matrix structure.”

—Tobias Kederer, PMP, Benefitfocus, Charleston, South Carolina, USA

The Benefitfocus team takes a similar tack. “A major part of project manager onboarding is a predetermined schedule of cross-functional meet and greets,” says Mr. Kederer. “Building strong relationships is key for new project managers in our matrix structure,” so the seeding of those relationships should start early—and be rigorous.


Portion of organizations surveyed in 2016 that planned to invest in onboarding programs to support recruitment—the most common investment for third year running.

Source: 2016 McQuaig Global Talent Recruitment Report, McQuaig Institute of Executive Development



Helping virtual project talent start on the right foot is a unique challenge—largely because those team members can't immerse themselves directly in organizational culture. With a co-located new hire, swinging by for an impromptu check-in is a breeze. But with a virtual project manager, organizations must plan in advance.

Get visual: Jenn Lim, CEO and co-founder of Delivering Happiness, an organization that's completely composed of remote workers, asks new hires to give video tours of their workspaces to build bonds early on. Gathering the team in front of a camera to greet the new virtual hire can create a greater sense of warmth and welcome than an email or phone call.

Put it in writing: Asking a co-worker a quick question can be more arduous from a distance, so lean into documentation for remote hires. That includes team guidelines: Having written communication rules can help virtual teams build trust and perform better. How swiftly should one expect a response from an email? Is it okay to multitask while on a virtual call? Be clear—the new hire (and the project) will benefit.

Spring for tickets: Not every organization can afford to fly remote hires to headquarters for onboarding—but calculate the cost of high turnover before ruling out this option. It's possible the expense of plane tickets more than pays off in retention.


It can take months for new project hires to learn the ins and outs of cultural norms—if they don't quit out of frustration in the meantime. So, a proper onboarding process must broadcast precisely how the project culture functions, Ms. Tessler says. “Don't leave new hires to figure out the organization's culture and unwritten rules on their own,” she says. “For instance, how are decisions made? When are project managers expected to act on their own once aligned with the main stakeholders?”

At Fast Shop, detailing all that information to new hires starts with the agreement letter and continues during onboarding meetings devoted exclusively to culture, the company's management methodology, teamwork and communication fundamentals.

Even a project manager's sense of autonomy should be spelled out, says Mr. Kederer. “Project management could mean many different things to an organization, from simply planning and coordinating on one end of the spectrum to driving the required project outcomes on the other side,” he says. “Onboarding should focus on dialing in on the right level of this spectrum and ensuring it's done within the right values.”

“Knowing our values, understanding what they actually look like in practice and embracing them is a key performance indicator for our project managers.”

—Tobias Kederer, PMP

For instance, one of the organization's values is “together,” meaning lone wolves are frowned upon and no project manager should make a critical decision completely alone, he says. “Knowing our values, understanding what they actually look like in practice and embracing them is a key performance indicator for our project managers.”

Communicating those cultural values early and explicitly sets up new hires for success—and a longer tenure. PM

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