Episode 192: Alex Zikakis on Overcoming Challenges to Build Effective Onboarding

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Shawnna Sumaoang: Hi, and welcome to the Sales Enablement PRO podcast, I’m Shawnna Sumaoang. Sales enablement is a constantly evolving space, and we’re here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so that they can be more effective in their jobs.

Today, I’m excited to have Alex Zikakis at Sales Assembly join us. Alex, I would love for you to introduce yourself, your role, and your organization to our audience.

Alex Zikakis: Perfect. Thank you for having me, I’m excited to be here. Who am I? I am just a Midwest dad trying to raise my kids right, I’m trying to enjoy some sports, fix some things around the house, make my wife proud, and have a fun job.

What is that job? I am a VP of Enablement at a company called a Sales Assembly. It is a membership company for scaling businesses. We leverage the power of community to help support businesses as they scale through programming, through resources, and connection. That’s Sales Assembly in a nutshell.

SS: Awesome. Well, I’m excited to have you joining our Sales Enablement PRO podcast since we have very similar missions, but ours is focused on sales enablement professionals specifically. You actually often talk about enablement challenges even within Sales Assembly.

You wrote an article on some common onboarding pitfalls to avoid. I’d love to understand from your enablement experience, what are some key challenges that you’ve encountered in building out an onboarding program?

AZ: There are no shortage of challenges when it comes to building an effective onboarding program, so I appreciate the question. I will try and narrow it down to the five that I put in the article just to make it nice and packaged here

The five I wrote were an undefined partnership with HR or people teams. Basically, where do they stop and where do you begin and how does that interaction work? That’s one, number two would be the lack of community support. Either the community doesn’t know how to support you or there just isn’t any support, so enablement folks are forced to do it on their own. The third one would be knowledge loss. How do you ensure that when folks are drinking from the fire hose when they first join the company that they retain some of that important information? The fourth one would be the handoff to managers. After the onboarding experience, how do you ensure that the managers are set up for success to make sure that their people can be successful once they hit the floor, so to speak? The fifth one, unclear metrics. What does readiness actually mean, how do you measure it, and what does success look like, both for the individual as well as for the company at large?

Those are the five that I wrote. Like I said, there are countless challenges with onboarding programs, but those felt like the ones that were the most salient.

SS: I agree. Those are definitely some key five challenges. Now, how have you worked to overcome some of those, at least in your experience?

AZ: Yeah, it’s tough because those challenges span the scope of a bunch of different groups and programs and elements within the program. The way I’ve thought about it is thoughtful planning. First and foremost, identifying what the goals are and then how you back into those goals through the planning that you’re doing. The second piece is I really think setting and resetting expectations with the folks that you’re working with as well as with the onboarding new hires. If there’s not clear expectations, then that could lead to assumptions and it could lead to misaligned ideas of what to expect, and so setting and then resetting expectations consistently throughout the process, to me, feels super important.

I’d also say don’t be married to the solution that you build. This should be ever-changing and ever-growing and evolving to meet the needs of the learners and the business. Those are some of the ways in which that I’ve thought about tackling that.

SS: I love that very straightforward advice as well. Now, in that article, you also talked about defining a partnership with HR teams when you’re building onboarding programs. Why is that particular partnership so important?

AZ: It’s a great question. HR, to me, married up with the onboarding group, whoever is part of that team, between the two groups you’re responsible for welcoming new folks to the company, establishing culture, and setting them up for success. If there is unclear expectations or unclear processes, you won’t effectively be able to do those things. If you can’t set those folks up for success, the new hires, the folks going through onboarding, the likelihood of them having a successful experience both in the first couple of weeks and then just a longer-term tenure at the company, the likelihood of that goes significantly down if they don’t have a good onboarding experience. That’s why if you can’t partner successfully with HR, then you’re putting a lot at risk with these new hires, which can be super costly.

SS: Absolutely. Now beyond HR, who are some of the other core teams that you have to partner with in order to really create effective onboarding programs? I’d love to drill into how you go about cultivating really strong partnerships where there’s like shared accountability for onboarding success?

AZ: That’s a great question. Every company is different, and the groups that make up the onboarding team, the onboarding program, are going to be different in every company. The groups that I’ve bucketed or thought through as I’ve been thinking about onboarding over the past career of mine, HR, obviously, we already mentioned that, the hiring manager, the enablement team, both the folks that are focused on onboarding as well as maybe the broader enablement team will be valuable when it comes to the onboarding process and program. Revenue leadership, that’s the sales and success leadership, the executives of the company. I’m even thinking CEO, CFO, COO, that C-Suite should be a part of the onboarding program, and I’m happy to talk about why too. SMEs, so subject matter experts for the specific areas in which you’re continuing to train and onboard. Peers of the new hires, so folks that will sit in the seat next to them, so to speak, virtually obviously not quite that anymore. Then the new hires, obviously they’re a part of this program as much as anybody. Those are the groups that I thought about it. It’s a lot of groups, but that, to me, that community is what makes onboarding successful.

SS: Absolutely. No, I think that those are quite a few groups they have to align with, but it’s an all-in effort to make the overall company successful.

AZ: Yeah. You also asked, how do we cultivate those partnerships? Let me dive into that for a second here. I think it’s important that you are the quarterback for these groups. There’s so many groups and it would be foolish to assume that any of these groups have a clear sense of exactly what role they should be playing and how they should be playing that role. Again, this goes back to the idea of setting expectations and resetting expectations, having a clear sense of what role they play and sharing that with them.
I love this quote, “inspect what you expect,” so having a clear sense of what they should be doing and then ensuring that they know what they’re doing, inspecting that, and making sure that it’s exactly what you want so that they can play the role that they’re meant to play in the onboarding program. That goes for everyone from the new hire all the way up to the C-suite, like telling the CEO what you expect of them. Turns out it’s easier for them to do that than if you’re just like, oh, you’re the CEO, you can figure it out. That’s how I think about it.

SS: Yeah, absolutely, even CEOs need guidance sometimes. Now, in another LinkedIn post, you talked about your interest in utilizing AI technology to better equip remote employees. I’d love to tie this back into onboarding. How do you envision these types of digital tools being used in onboarding programs in the next year and beyond?

AZ: AI is the future. That’s what we’re all hoping for, that way I won’t have to work as hard. That’s my idea. I think about AI specifically in onboarding like this: Ideally, when you get someone new to the company, a new hire in onboarding, AI can help you identify the coaching opportunities and development opportunities before that person even starts. I would love to start the onboarding program and say, oh, Billy, I know he was strong in this area and needs help in that area. Sally over here is stronger in a different area in and weaker in another area over here. Now I’m going to partner them together and they’re going to learn really powerfully together based on the areas of opportunity I already know before onboarding starts. This opportunity identification before I think is super interesting, which would happen through screening tools and things like that.

In the HR and hiring process, I think another one is leveraging coaching opportunities or identifying coaching opportunities during the onboarding process. Through role-plays and potentially certifications and conversations like that, using recording tools that can help identify these coaching areas and opportunities in the onboarding process, to me, feels like a big opportunity. Then the other one would be surfacing the right content. Based on these opportunities, what’s content that enablement has built or resources that exist that we could surface to these folks so that they can easily enable themselves and self-learn to continue to develop? That way they wouldn’t be coming to the onboarding team with questions of like, what did go well, where am I weak, what do I do, and how do I do this? These things are naturally surfaced to them based on the actions they’ve been taking in the onboarding process. That’s my ideal state of what AI looks like. It’s the future so who knows it could be way cooler than that.

SS: I love that. Now, the last question for you. In closing, how do you measure the success of onboarding? What are some of the key metrics that you focus on to really prove the value or maybe even highlight areas to approve upon?

AZ: This is another one that’s super dependent on the business itself and what the goal is of onboarding, what the goal is of these folks. I would say, there’s the Kirkpatrick measurement model that I like to use all the time when I think about enablement. There are four levels of that measurement model.

There’s the reaction, there’s knowledge transfer, there’s behavioral change, and then there are results. I think you can apply this to onboarding as well. I’ll give specific examples for each of those because I think that might be helpful. The reaction, that first level of measurement, can come with like an NPS type of score, or tell me, would you recommend this course to a friend, or it’s a confidence-based score, how competent are you exhibiting XYZ? How competent are you delivering value propositions or talking to customers about so on and so forth? I think that the confidence score to me is really valuable. It’s a snapshot in time, that’s the only thing is like, I’m really confident today, but tomorrow you might tell me something and all of a sudden, my competence goes away down. I think it’s important, but it’s important in that moment and shouldn’t dictate anything much further than that momentary thing. You can use it for trend analysis, but the reaction and confidence scores is an interesting place to start.

The next one is knowledge transfer. I think about knowledge transfer when I think about quizzing and assessments. You didn’t know this one thing and after enablement or training, you now know this thing. Again, it’s a short-term measurement, which is like it could just be a memory measurement, which is valuable, but not ultimately long-term valuable.

That’s when the behavioral change, which is that next level of measurement, comes into play. You can see behavioral change through role-play, through call recording, through that type of cooperative assessment. A role-play is a really good example of that. I think that certification element can be really helpful to determine if behavior has changed from before you joined the company to after the onboarding experience.

The last one would be results. This one has the most variety in terms of how companies can measure this and how I’ve seen companies measure it. Some examples would be time to first deal or time to quota. How long does it take to close your first deal or pass your first lead? How long does it take to achieve your quota? There are a lot of factors that go into that because again, once the handoff happens to managers, then there’s a whole set of factors that can contribute to this and variables. The other one that I like to think through is time to readiness. Now, it’s really important that you define what readiness means because readiness to company A could mean something very different than readiness at company B, and readiness at 30 days is different than readiness at 60 days. 30 days, maybe it’s just you need to be comfortable talking to your peers about the product. At 60 days in you have to be comfortable talking to your customers about the product. Time to readiness and how you measure that, I think, is a really interesting idea, but it’s got to be right for the business and it’s got to be something that you can measure over time, and you can feel like you have a real impact on. More often than not, time to first deal, time to first lead time, to first handoff, time to first quota, those are ones that I see more often than not.

SS: Well, thank you so much, Alex. I’ve loved this conversation and got some really great insights along the way. Thank you for taking the time to chat with us, I appreciate it.

AZ: Listen, it is my pleasure. I love talking about this stuff. If you have 40 more questions, I’d answer all of those too.

SS: Thank you, Alex. To our audience, thanks for listening. For more insights, tips, and expertise from sales enablement leaders, visit salesenablement.pro. If there’s something you’d like to share or a topic you’d like to learn more about, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

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