In 1997, the American Navy was facing a big problem. Less than 50% of their sailors were reenlisting after completing a tour of duty. Retraining new sailors cost the navy at least $100K, but they understood the real cost of losing sailors was not just financial; it also impacted morale.
Why were so many people leaving? For many, it started with their first day.
New recruits in the navy—sometimes as young as 17—didn’t just have to endure a challenging boot camp; they also had to endure an isolated and unwelcoming experience aboard their first ship.
After graduating boot camp, they boarded a plane to their first ship where, upon landing, there was no welcoming party or person to pick them up. Not only were they expected to find their own way to the ship; once they got there, nobody welcomed them aboard. Usually, the sailors on the ship were so busy heading out on leave for the weekend, they couldn’t have cared less about the new sailor.
Well, in June of 1997, when Captain Michael Abrashoff took command of his first ship, the USS Benfold, he sought to increase respect and buy-in by improving the experience of every sailor. As Abrashoff explains in his book, It’s Your Ship, personal conversations with new arrivals revealed, “They felt totally intimidated that they had no friends and knew no one. They were lost for the first forty-eight hours, on their own aboard the ship while nearly everyone else was on leave.”
Abrashoff himself was only 17 upon entering the navy, and his conversations with new sailors brought back his own feelings of fear and isolation. He quickly realized that changing the first-day experience would be a critical component of turning one of the worst ships in the navy into one of the BEST.
What’s Your First-Day Experience Like?
When Captain Abrashoff learned from his XO that the USS Benfold had absolutely no “welcome-aboard” process, he asked his officers, “How would you want your son or daughter to be treated on their first day if they ever joined the Navy? What’s the first thing you’d want them to do?”
The USS Benfold quickly developed and implemented a “welcome-aboard” program, wherein sailors were picked up from the airport, brought aboard the ship, and immediately allowed to call their family to let them know they arrived safe. They were assigned a buddy for the first 48 hours as their personal tour guide around the ship and San Diego. During this time, they also sat down for a personal one-on-one with Captain Abrashoff himself.
Abrashoff isn’t the only leader who understands the importance of the first-day experience; others in business and sports are starting to get it, as well.
In The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath share how companies like John Deere have completely revamped their onboarding process. In their Asia offices, John Deere struggled with employee engagement and retention, as well. So, they designed what they call “The First-Day Experience”, wherein new employees are partnered with a “buddy” who connects with them and guides them through their first day before they even arrive.
At places like John Deere and the USS Benfold, they have realized that the onboarding experience isn’t just important for the new members to connect to the group. The experience of designing and welcoming new employees provides an important opportunity to ask, “What do we want being a part of this team to feel like?” They weren’t just connecting with each other; they were connecting with their values.
Sports—just like the military, fraternities, and other groups—often have traditions around hazing new members, not welcoming them. I still remember being full of fear and uncertainty before my first basketball practice as a freshman in high school.
Nobody took the time to introduce themselves. Players were expected to step in and figure out plays and drills along with the more experienced players. Reflecting back on it, the first day was a pretty good indicator of how the rest of the season would go for me: Don’t ask questions; just show up and do what you were told. This is not the experience we want to create for our players!
As a coach, my usual system was rarely more than a handshake, asking a few questions about them, and then tossing them a ball to go get shots up before we started.
Making a great first impression isn’t just important for new people; it’s also important for leaders and the team to make a great first impression on new members. We’ve got to be intentional even before Day One by starting to form connections and communicating our standards.
The Onboarding Process
If you are like many coaches, you might be totally starting from scratch, but even if you already have a system, it’s worth evaluating the ways in which it can be improved.
One of the best ways to do this is to create your “first-day experience” with former and returning players. In just a short 15-minute meeting, not can you get your players bought-in; you can also get them excited to serve the newbies!
Try asking your team these three questions to help them design a powerful first-day experience for new members:
- Reflect back on your first day. What did it feel like?
- Now, imagine your best friend was going out for the team. How would you want them to feel on their first day?
- What can we do to create that experience for every new member of the team?
5 Ways to Make Their Experience Special
- Personal Letter from Coach: Whether it is a short note at the bottom of the practice schedule, a personal card to every player, or a phone call the day before, connection for you and your players starts before they even arrive.
- Big-Brother/Big-Sister Program: Partnering each new player with a returning player is an absolute must. Get your players to design the program. Some effective methods we’ve seen used in other programs have been sending a text, posting a shout-out on social media, welcoming them on the court/field, and working alongside them during the first two practices.
- One-on-One Sit-Down: Take the time to sit down with your players and get to know them as people. While you probably can’t do what Greg Popovich did—spending a few days on the beach at Turks and Caicos with his #1 draft pick and future NBA MVP, Tim Duncan—you can still make some effort! For some teams, this is could be coffee, lunch, or just a personal chat on their first day.
- Photo with the Team: Many of us coaches aren’t into social media, but it can be a powerful force. Take photos with your new players and their new teammates and coaches. Share those photos on social media, welcoming them to the program; they will appreciate the public shout-out!
- Share Stories: What does it mean to be a part of your program? I’m sure you’ve got some great slogans up on the wall and can fire out a powerful speech, but few things are more influential than story. Get a few players to share their story of what it means to be a part of the program.
- Abrashoff, Michael. It’s Your Ship (pp. 161-162). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Heath, Chip & Dan. Power of Moments.