Smarter Workforce Profile: Bringing you Onboarding Nirvana—Sunita Navile

By Rudy Karsan

The latest in the Smarter Workforce Profile series features someone who can tell you how (not) to lose your  new hires in ten easy steps! Meet Sunita Iyengar Navile, our Onboarding guru, and someone who is looking to take the onboarding process to a whole new level.

One of the joys I have in life is watching people grow. When Sunita joined us about 5 years ago, I hadn’t seen anyone with that much enthusiasm, passion and energy join our company in a long time. And as she has matured into a global thought leader on onboarding, she has exhibited at Kenexa an impressive skill set–from engineering to finance to communication to storytelling–and sometimes it makes me wonder how the Creator instills this much talent in one individual. I look forward to watching her grow and continue to take on the world in a way that is meaningful and powerful not only for the organization but for the broader community.

I decided to find out what makes her so passionate about onboarding, and about some of her other passions.

How do you define Onboarding?

Onboarding is the fundamental path to Performance Excellence. Companies are heavily invested in talent acquisition, but by the same token, they are not able to transform the acquired talent to achieve performance excellence. Having the right talent at the right time involves much more than hiring. The typical approach to Onboarding today is focused on compliance, paperwork and provisioning. It has very little to do with enabling employees to perform to their full potential. It is like finding the best seeds and then expecting the seeds to magically sprout and grow, without the proper care and nurturing. As a result, companies are facing expensive turnover, poor productivity and lack of employee engagement. When done right, Onboarding accelerates performance excellence and ensures employee engagement. People typically get hired for “what” they know, but what makes employees successful is also “who” they know and how they work with them. Onboarding is not just about individual productivity, it is about maximizing team productivity. We recently did a webcast in collaboration with the Human Capital Institute that discusses the concept of onboarding in greater detail, it can be accessed here.

You use the term “Onboarding Nirvana”—what do you mean by that?

Onboarding nirvana is a state when employees are highly engaged, they are high performers, they experience professional fulfillment and exceptional job satisfaction, are competent and confident, are continuous learners and have a strong sense of belonging to the team. I sincerely believe that every employee has the right to that nirvana no matter what we do or where we work. This can and does happen when the manager, employee and company are aligned in their effort to achieve it. I believe that the manager plays the most important role in influencing the nirvana. The relationship a manager has with the employee is a crucial driver of employee engagement. Onboarding is owned by the manager and it is HR’s role to facilitate and foster the culture.

How are companies faring today?

We are in a talent paradox, i.e. in spite of high unemployment rates, finding and retaining key talent is a challenge. Companies are now realizing that the sheer economics of hiring and rehiring are not working. The need to invest in developing existing talent is imminent. We are starting to see an increased attempt at Onboarding; however it is very tactical and is perceived to be the logical end of talent acquisition, rather than a catalyst to ongoing talent development and performance excellence. The two key challenges for companies on this journey are as follows:

  • How to get the employees productive. People talk of “Time to Productivity”, but don’t have a good measure of productivity or a consistent path to get employees productive.
  • How to meet employee expectations. Employees today are very discerning and they expect more from their jobs. They want meaning and fulfillment from work.

Most people practices in organizations tend to be episodic or silo-ed in nature, rather than strategic and continuous. HR still operates using systems of record, designed for compliance and control, rather than agile systems of engagement. Companies are struggling because they don’t have the required expertise, deliberate design or a culture to sustain the same.

What do you foresee about Onboarding in the Smarter Workforce?

Over the last decade, we have seen dramatic shifts in talent demographics and composition of the workforce, as well as technological advances, all of which are changing the context of work. Consider these key trends which are reshaping the talent strategies within businesses.

  • Who is the employee? When hiring, companies think of finding the “best” as if they were a class of people. I think it is time to see the true employee, which is The Employee as an Individual.  Talent is the most sustainable resource, yet companies treat it as portable or replaceable. People practices are typically one-size-fits-all and do not take into consideration that employees are individuals. Every employee brings distinctive motivation and strengths and the organization has to provide the right opportunity for that employee. For example, not all employees are interested in being people managers and not everyone likes to travel or work with customers directly. Organizations have to rethink jobs or roles, career paths, development and rewards and recognition systems to create individually meaningful opportunities.
  • What does the workforce look like? We are now looking at a contingent workforce. It is now estimated that as many as 40% of all employees are working part-time or on a contract basis. With job needs getting more specialized and changing employee expectations, the free agent movement is here to stay and grow. Free agents are likely to have multiple jobs at the same time. As a part of your workforce, they represent your company’s brand as much as do the full-time employees. However, most companies have an Onboarding program just for employees. Essentially, the lines between employees and contingent workforce have to get blurred and businesses have to rethink their people practices.
  • How does work get done? Think global, social, mobile and virtually borderless. Technology has removed borders between people, leaving more distributed yet connected teams. Onboarding is about team productivity as much as it is about individual productivity. It is about harnessing collective intelligence and innovation. Coworkers will have to learn to collaborate with peers, customers and partners in different time zones, cultures, lifestyles and language. While companies are still navigating the social platform, employee conversations have moved to social and companies have to find a better way to engage employees post-hiring in the social medium. There is a need for ongoing dialogue and feedback with employees. And of course, more business is done on mobile devices than ever before. So people processes and systems have to be mobile optimized.
  • What are the skills required? In a constantly changing world, skill needs are getting more specialized and skill gaps continue to rise. Work will move to the areas where talent is available. As a result, managers will need to have greater global fluency and cultural awareness. Organizations will have to invest in continuous learning and in facilitated talent mobility to ensure a more agile workforce. In this context, Onboarding is not just for new hires, it also applies to employees changing jobs or roles and employees acquired in Mergers and Acquisitions.
Have you experienced Onboarding Nirvana yourself?

Yes! Many times. I have been really fortunate to work in companies in a variety of industries with both mature and informal Onboarding processes. I have worked in Customer Service and Sales functions in the Hospitality and Consumer Products industries, where the Onboarding programs were excellent. They were designed to provide employees a deep understanding of the business and all its associated functions. Cross training, structured feedback mechanisms, buddy and mentor support were some of the positives of the year-long Onboarding program that were tremendously helpful. When I moved to HR, I had the opportunity to design Onboarding Nirvanas for others, which was personally very fulfilling. I led the Talent acquisition functions for IT and Clinical Staffing business, which gave me insights into the talent acquisition needs of businesses. Kenexa gave me the perfect opportunity to leverage my experience and passion to create a platform for Onboarding. Onboarding needs continue to evolve and I am excited about the possibilities for the same as we help companies build smarter workforces.

What would you say the future might entail?

It is really exciting, as companies are exploring the infinite possiblities involving gamification, personalized onboarding on your mobile, and bringing IBM Watson to HR Solutions.

What are your interests outside of work?

I trained as an Indian classical music singer, and also love to sketch and paint with watercolor. I love learning languages and can speak six Indian languages in addition to English and French. I enjoy cooking. My biggest joy is my 11 year old daughter, who keeps me on my toes.

I love to learn and laugh — these are my key motivators. My family passionately believes in supporting education as a fundamental right for all kids and we are involved with two schools — The Parikrma School in Bangalore, India supporting orphans/kids from slums and the BrainTree School in Uganda. We spent a day with the kids from the Parikrama School last year and used the Community Service Holiday for the same. It was truly the best day ever!

Rudy Karsan

Rudy Karsan

Nooruddin (Rudy) Karsan currently spearheads the IBM Kenexa Smarter Workforce initiative, which helps companies attract, engage and retain talent to build a smarter workforce. Passionate about creatin ...(Read More)

Posted in: Latest, Onboarding, Rudy Karsan, Smarter Workforce, The Thought

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