On-Boarding: Creating a Sense of Place

With society barreling into the New Normal, there are “Norms” of human behavior that transcend change and continue to influence our approach to leading others. One example is a person’s desire to feel that they belong, a revered sense of place grounded in an authentic, emotional connection to a shared identity or purpose.

Thus, a continued reverence for July 7th within the Tall Tim Story.

It was the middle of my Junior year of high school when our Guidance Counselor stopped me in the hall and asked about plans for college, which were nebulous at that point. Fortunately, she could detect a hint of sincerity within my flippant response, “Thinking of going to a military academy, probably the Coast Guard Academy”.

Her eyes widened and we made plans to meet in her office the next day. I sent in the preliminary inquiry form to the Academy. The Academy sent two forms in return. I completed and returned them . . .

So began what felt like an endless trail of correspondence and activities. I sent more forms to the Academy. The Academy sent even more forms in return. Essays were then written, Letters of Recommendation secured, transcripts submitted, interviews conducted, more forms submitted, head was turned to cough, seating height was measured, physicals were passed.

Finally, prayers were answered.

Official notification arrived in March via a beautifully embossed letter. I was one of 351 Appointments offered, and accepted, from over 11,000 applications submitted that year.

Please note that every piece of correspondence to that point, and each that would follow, was addressed to me personally. Not to my parents, not to “or Current Resident” . . . this was a personal relationship between the Office of Admissions and the Applicant.

I reported to the Coast Guard Academy as directed on Monday, July 7th.

Most of that first day was a blur. “Swab Summer” is an On-Boarding program that follows the protocol of a military bootcamp, so by mid-afternoon:

I was in an ill-fitting blue uniform . . . had my head shaved . . . had been yelled at by at least a dozen people I was not allowed to make eye contact with . . . double-timed everywhere as the prescribed method of transit . . . yelled at some more for reasons unclear to this day . . . and was now standing on the Parade Ground in the heat and humidity of a mid-summer afternoon in New England.

Eventually it was time to report to our rooms and prepare for dinner service. Entering the sanctity of my room for the first time, I began having serious doubts about several recent life choices.

I approached my desk to find an assortment of Academy-related materials stacked neatly on a desk blotter. On top of it all was a nametag, white lettering etched into a simple blue plate: Tim Shamrell, U. S. Coast Guard Academy.

Time stood still. Everything clicked into place. The entire journey made sense:

“They were expecting me”

It was surreal. For the last year and a half, I had committed all my energies to a pursuing a dream. Now here I was, living it . . . but not believing it. There remained a sense that it was only a matter of time before the bubble popped.

Seeing my nametag opened my eyes to the entirety of what the Academy had invested in me.

That moment triggered an emotional connection to the purpose beyond the process. I felt an immediate sense of place, that I was welcomed, genuinely wanted, and that I belonged.

I was home.

A Feeling of Home

My question is: How do you create a feeling of “home” for your new talent?

Timeframes, training facilities, curriculum platforms, delivery techniques . . . these tangible aspects of an on-boarding program will vary greatly among businesses, occupations and between industries. Day One for some may be spent at a table in the breakroom or a booth in the back of the restaurant. For others it may be spent surrounded by anywhere from six to 600 new teammates. I have experienced both sides of the spectrum.

In the New Normal many Day Ones will be a virtual experience, utilizing any number of available platforms.

Regardless of size, location, or method deployed, your individual program is designed to enable new talent to perform. It may even generate a healthy sense of empowerment.

Is it enough to inspire new talent to engage? Perhaps, only if there is enough attention paid to the intangibles, the details that appeal to a person’s desire to belong, to discover their sense of place.

It is a delicate balance and everyone’s journey will be unique.

That is why building in as many touch points as possible, multiple opportunities for individuals to discover their connection, and detailed execution of an on-boarding experience, is critical to the engagement of your new talent. This includes a genuine extension from members of the team that says “We care” then demonstrates it through small gestures and a personalized welcome. 

The following are a few Tall Tim Tips that highlight and support the intended purpose of an On-Boarding Program. Your design and execution may require innovative adjustments to meet the practical process that works best for your team:

In the Spirit of Small Gestures

Consider what you do to attract new clients, customers, or become a preferred choice over your competition. Then consider what steps you take to retain loyalty once a choice has been made.  

This spirit should carry over into efforts to On-Board your new talent. Creating a sense of place doesn’t have to cost much, it just has to show how much you care. Small gestures that are personalized and unique to the individual can go a long way to making someone feel “at home”.  

For example, we utilized an exercise wherein new talent introduced themselves and identified their favorite snack or candy bar. A critique of the exercise highlights this as a method to establish community, using common interests as a bridge to engagement among the team.

Later, when the group returned from lunch, they found their favorite snack or candy bar at their seat. We facilitated a follow-up critique from the morning, illustrating the power of listening for customer preferences, then delivering on them. The discussion then paralleled how we accomplish this for each other.   

When we asked the group, “How did this make you feel?”, one of the new team members burst into tears, “No one has ever cared this much” was all she could say.

If your On-Boarding is facilitated virtually, over-night delivery is a great option to communicate the same message: “I was listening, heard your preferences, care about you, and thought you might enjoy (this)”.

Sometimes a favorite snack or candy bar is all it takes.

What’s in a Name?


Verify the correct spelling, confirm pronunciation in advance.

Double . . . no, triple-check that everyone’s name is spelled correctly on forms, nametags, nameplates, training manuals, etc. This is someone’s cherished identity, to be treated with full dignity and respect.  

Remember, it could be a nametag that says it all. 

A Whole New World

If a facility tour is part of your itinerary, consider moving it forward. There is science to support numerous options, but I prefer to manage the process through the eyes of new talent.

After surveying several months of On-Boarding participants, it was discovered that for an overwhelming majority, one of the first things they wanted to do on their first day was see the property.

The time we were investing in culture and brand philosophy, while not wasted, lacked visual relevance. Mentally, the new talent was too curious about their new world . . . there was not enough emotional space available to process organizational values and theory.

We were asking “Are you proud to be here?” and realistically, the new talent was responding “I don’t even know where I am”. 

Once we moved the facility tour earlier, we could incorporate knowledge connections throughout the cultural, brand, and service values portions of the presentations. Learning retention improved . . . visual evidence helped to make sense of the brand elements and their practical applications.

Share Stories from the Road (Part I)

Storytelling is such an incredibly critical element within an On-Boarding program, whether in person or through virtual connection.

Sharing your personal stories is the ideal way to communicate pride in yourself, and pride in being affiliated with your organization. People identify with different aspects of individual journeys, looking for that nugget of shared experience they can build upon.

This is especially valuable within the stories of Senior Leaders, such as a General Manager or Director, who offer material proof of personal goals and aspirations being realized.

This is the time to be both optimistic and authentic. If you have chapters within your story that illustrate lessons from setbacks, consider sharing them. This reassures a feeling of security (another norm) within your new talent, that even if life happens, progress on their journey will continue.

Share Stories from the Road (Part II)

Storytelling opportunities work well from a location where the storyteller feels most comfortable, and may even be incorporated into your facility tour if practical.

This worked in our favor at a large luxury resort that featured numerous restaurant outlets, outdoor vegetable gardens, Golf Club, and a Spa. Those individual operational leaders, while extremely confident in their areas, did not carry the same confidence to a presentation in a classroom setting.

So, we took the show on the road. Food & Beverage Director in a restaurant, Chef in the garden, Director of Golf on the practice tee, and Spa Director in the Spa. Each professional was in their zone and delivered relative background and stories with a natural confidence.

An additional benefit was that their stories became experiential to the new talent. Something unique and personal was arranged in every location, creating a story the new talent could turn around and share with family, friends, and eventually guests.

A Sense of Place

Every individual will experience a moment within their On-Boarding when the emotional purpose behind the practical process is realized. In my experience, following an 18-month journey, it was seeing my nametag that let me know I was “home”. A basic On-Boarding program will enable your team to perform, perhaps instill a level of empowerment, and with appropriate attention to detail can even work to engage your new talent. Consider the spirit in which you build loyalty among clients and apply a similar approach to your On-Boarding program. Small, personalized gestures, correct spelling, and pronunciation of names, establishing visual relevance, sharing personal stories are all great techniques that establish a sense of place, whether in person or virtual, to groups of one or . . . more.

Thank you for spending your Tuesday with Tall Tim Talks!

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