Unlocking Potential: Grant Thornton's Game-Changing Twist on Manager Onboarding

Johan Storm
Co-founder and Product Owner

Occasionally, I have the opportunity to speak with Anna Gilljam, Head of Learning at Grant Thornton. To this day, I have yet to end one of those calls without being blown away by the innovation maintained at Grant Thornton. Recently, when I spoke toAnna, she told me about the implementation of their onboarding program for new managers, developed by a team of her colleagues. Upon reviewing the program, I felt nothing short of pure happiness.

The program is refreshingly free from traditional training delivery methods, which has created opportunities to enable performance that previously may have seemed impossible to most. Instead of allowing their initiative to be defined by the circumstances that come with traditional delivery methods, they started with a blank page and managed to create a one-year program that places the new manager and their challenges at the center.

Challenges with Traditional Methods of Onboarding New Managers

The conventional approach to onboarding new managers typically follows two steps:

  1. Handing them a checklist that's primed for immediate action, but falls short in fostering genuine learning and growth.
  2. Enrolling them in a New Manager course, packed with information and often scheduled based on the training calendar, not the manager's actual needs throughout the year. These courses may only begin semi-annually to ensure ample participation, while a new manager's challenges are often tied to their first month on the job, or to a specific annual HR process. This makes using synchronizing classroom trainings as the sole solution to real-time needs hard, if not impossible.

💡 Two critical notes on traditional classroom training and their overlooked implications:

1. Classroom sessions often need a minimum attendee count to validate expenses and ensure a worthwhile experience, influencing when and how often these sessions occur.

2. Once attendees are assembled and arrangements made, there's often a built-in inertia to “use” this precious time to introduce as much new content as possible. This can lead to long sessions that are draining for participants, that drag on far beyond what’s ideal for effective learning.

Breaking Free from the Constraints of Traditional Delivery

Being a learning organization that tends to emphasize innovation, Grant Thornton decided to break free from the constraints of traditional classroom training and redesign their program without limitations of what had been done in the past.

This did not mean walking away from synchronous, in-person sessions all together. It did, however, entail taking a step back and only deploying physical sessions when the format actually made sense from a learning and behavior change perspective.

Importantly, by focusing on goals and employee needs first, Grant Thornton have been able to shed the legacy of traditional classroom delivery. They no longer have to deliver training only when the room is full, nor do they feel forced to fill full days of content to "motivate" the high logistics costs. Instead, they’ve reimagined alternatives that make use of both asynchronous digital delivery and in-person sessions, where the latter are instead all about meetings between humans – not content delivery.

Focusing on Timing and Peer Support

Since the center of gravity for their manager onboarding is no longer the physical session some months away from the new manager’s first day, Grant Thornton have been able to design a program that starts immediately when the new manager starts—whenever that is. The program provides the support needed at just the right time, both for the new managers themselves, and their supporting cast of a hiring managers and HR Business Partners.

Furthermore, as many new managers may feel isolated and wonder if they are the only ones facing certain challenges, Grant Thornton's program creates learning triads that batch together new managers that then stay together for the entire first year, and include pre-planned self-directed peer meetings.

The components that make up the program

The project group designed a one-year program with the goal of ensuring that the new managers are functional and comfortable in their roles upon graduating. The program consisted of three main components.

  • An onboarding process that starts on the same day the new manager begins, that helps them get up to speed in their new role. A crucial part of the onboarding process are the self-directed learning triads, that allow new managers to lean on peers in similar positions who have also just started. They discuss and reflect on situations and challenges that come up in their daily work in regular meetings throughout the first year. At their service is a dedicated HR Business Partner, to help get them going and answer questions along the way.
  • Support, practice, and reflection timely aligned with the annual employee processes wheel, which enables them to utilize each employee process as a real-life learning and practice opportunity.
  • Bootcamps that revolve around specific topics, such as challenging conversations and goal setting. The topics covered are chosen from the most frequent challenging situations new managers are faced with, making them highly relevant to the participant. As each bootcamp is only about one single topic, the content vs. practice ratio can also be radically shifted – only a smaller portion is set aside for introducing the challenge at hand and the tools aimed at tackling the situation, while the majority of time is instead spent practicing in a safe environment, with quick access to expert feedback.

The three main pillars of GeT Leading are an automated onboarding process, just-in-time support for annual processes and in-person bootcamps.

The three main pillars of GeT Leading are an automated onboarding process, just-in-time support for annual processes and in-person bootcamps.

The onboarding started whenever the new manager joined, the process support were aligned with when each process was to be conducted and the bootcamps where hosted during the fall.

Challenges with Traditional Methods of Supporting Newly Hired Managers

Managers Need Guidance from Day 1, Not Day 120

The conventional approach to new manager training tends to align well with the administrative and operational needs of the learning department. However, its efficacy in bolstering the performance of freshly appointed managers is worth questioning. The primary reason for this is straightforward: New managers step in to their roles on day 1 and are in particular need of guidance during those first weeks, when new habits are beginning to form. Deploying a New manager course on day 120 can therefore be too little too late – bad habits have already taken root, and unlearning them is a lot tougher than getting them right in the first place.

The Timing of a Training Session is Rarely Aligned with Opportunities for Application

Secondly, for effective behavior transfer in the workplace, it is essential to have ample opportunities to apply newly introduced knowledge and skills. This brings us to another limitation of the traditional New manager course format: Often, the chances to put the skills taught to use do not align with the timing of the training. Instead, such opportunities come at specific (and foreseeable) points during the year, and are dictated by the company's annual cycle for HR processes—not when the training happens to be scheduled.

First Iteration: Developing a Program Exclusively with Microsoft Tools

Some might contend that implementing a program that solves all this would be next to impossible without advanced systems dedicated to this specific use-case. The project group at Grant Thornton, however, did not. They reasoned that doing something in order to get early feedback would be far better than jumping into a lengthy procurement process for a new system, where the list of requirements would mostly be based on guesses anyway. With a clear IT strategy that instead revolved around the Microsoft suite, which they already had at their disposal, they promptly got to work.

The program's initial iteration was developed using only Outlook, Sharepoint, Teams and the conventional checklist for new managers:

  • Sharepoint became the program's central hub. This is where new managers could reliably find resources and links tailored to their needs.
  • Outlook facilitated the scheduling of learning triads and kept managers informed about upcoming trainings and group meetings.
  • Teams chats were used by learning triads to maintain communication and schedule meetings.
  • Lastly, tasks were assigned to recruiting managers through the traditional checklist that's given to all new managers.

A Key Success Factor: Near-Perfect Timing from the Employee's Perspective

From my personal viewpoint, being an onlooker from the outside, I think that one of the keys to success here lies in the team's fine-grained understanding of the details of the new managers' situation. They understood the unique challenges during the first weeks and months in a new role. The habits that needed to be formed. The processes throughout the year that would cause the most anxiety and problems unless proactively supported. Letting this deep understanding guide the design lead to a program that is centered around a new manager's real needs, rather than being dictated by what's most convenient when the learning department sets their annual schedule.

Put another way: From a new manager's perspective, this program is more well-timed than any traditional classroom training could ever be. New managers receive support from their very first day and are continuously assisted throughout the year as they take on each annual employee process for the first time. And, perhaps most importantly, they never even reach the point of feeling lonely as a manager, as the triads immediately give them a context in which they get support from peers in the same situation.

Needless to say, this approach contrasts sharply with the common practice of scheduling training sessions at the end of June and December. While those periods might be great in terms of availability in the prospective participants' calendars, they also mark the final stretch just before lengthy vacations, leaving no room for practical application of what's been learned as they conclude.

Nevertheless, Excessive Administrative Tasks and Limited Insight Presented Challenges

One challenge with this setup is its demand for persistence, which, luckily, is something I time and again witnessed the team at Grant Thornton having in spades. They not only designed and ran the program but also persevered through countless unforeseen obstacles, and pushed through extensive administrative tasks that would have overwhelmed most others (let alone myself). Still, after implementing and running the program for some time, questions began to arise, particularly around the group meetings:

  • Are the new managers consistently scheduling and attending their meetings?
  • When they do meet, are the discussions productive?
  • Are they capitalizing on opportunities to practice and learn?

As important as those questions were, finding answers proved challenging with only the tools in the Microsoft suite at your disposal. As a customer of Knowly, Grant Thornton reached out to inquire if Knowly might offer a solution that better addresses their needs.

Elevating the Program by Addressing Core Challenges

When Grant Thornton approached us at Knowly, they highlighted several challenges that prevented them from taking their project beyond its first iteration.

  1. Administrative overhead: Any attempt to refine the program invariably added to the administrative load of those managing it. This dynamic was clearly unsustainable for a project that was meant to be continuously improved.
  2. Lack of insight: The team found it difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the different pieces of their jigsaw puzzle. Questions arose like: Are managers completing their tasks? How proficiently are they performing? Are our interventions effective? Is the participation of the recruiting managers up to par?
  3. Support for recruiting managers: While recruiting managers bear the responsibility of nurturing the new managers as they take on their new role, there were doubts about whether the recruiting managers in turn were receiving adequate support. The only aid provided was the traditional checklist, which, while effective when used, was often overlooked in the exact time of need.
  4. Cohesion among new managers: New managers neither felt like they were part of a structured program nor connected with their peers who where on the same journey.

Second iteration: Leveraging Knowly to Decouple Grant Thornton's Ambition from the Administrative Burden

Hearing about these challenges, we got to work. We crafted a proposal where Knowly would serve as the driving force to enhance and elevate their program.

Integrating Knowly with the MS Teams Suite for a Comprehensive Approach

Most Knowly customers use the Microsoft suite, which is why we aim to complement and harness its strengths, rather than competing with it. For instance, the learning journeys crafted in Knowly can be seamlessly integrated into any team you create in MS Teams. Moreover, when asking group leaders to schedule a session for an upcoming learning triad, we simplify the process by leveraging the robust features already present in the Outlook calendar.

To ensure that the strengths of each system were maximized, the next phase would feature:

  • MS Teams: Serving as the primary platform for participant communication and announcements, making it the central node for all participants.
  • Sharepoint: Established as the main content hub for the program, Sharepoint would serve as the go-to site where all essential resources are easily accessible and navigable.
  • Knowly: Acting as the engine that automates and ties together this web of learning processes, the experience in Knowly caters not only to the new hires and recruiting managers but also offers detailed insights for both the project team and individual managers.
A combination of learning journeys in Knowly ties together the various parts of GeT Leading.

Knowly would be employed to significantly reduce administrative tasks, freeing up time for enhancing program. All the while, it would add even more precision to the crucial timing aspect, that is fundamental to the program's success.

Harnessing Opportunities Through Knowly Integration

Elevating Managerial Support and Engagement

Knowly now provides Grant Thornton with a suite of tools that significantly boosts support for managers, allowing them to immerse themselves in developmental processes. The project team can effortlessly help every recruiting manager, ensuring they receive timely updates and reminders for pivotal actions, and a thorough understanding of each new employee's journey through the program—all automated, meaning no extra burden of administration for the team.

Separating Growth Ambitions from Administrative Hurdles

Armed with Knowly, Grant Thornton is now positioned to push boundaries and scale their project without the looming concern of being swamped by administrative duties or compromising on analytics and insights.

In this specific context, the once daunting administrative tasks could now be simplified to:

  1. Adding the new hire into the GeT Leading MS team.
  2. Logging their contact details and start date in Knowly.
  3. Enrolling the new hire in a peer group learning journey, which then takes over the coordination of triad meetings.

As their work has long been one of my foremost sources of inspiration for truly novel ideas, it is with great excitement that I look forward to seeing how the GeT Leading project continues to evolve over time.

As it does, I’ll be sure to follow up on this article with a part 2, which my gut tells me will be filled with even more useful insights. 

Until then,

Johan Storm,
Co-founder and Product Owner at Knowly

“Fråga inte hur du kan motivera andra, fundera kring hur du kan skapa en miljö där de motiverar sig själva.”

Edward Deci

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