Extreme Onboarding with Alonzo Harris

If you know the plot of “Training Day” you likely have your eyebrows raised at this point.

Alonzo Harris is a feature character responsible for determining if rookie Jake Hoyt is capable of becoming a member of his team. You may know Alonzo’s character from the famous phrase “King Kong ain’t got sh*t on me,” which was completely improvised by Denzel Washington.

The movie is a chaotic look at one full day on the beat with Alonzo and Jake, which got me thinking about onboarding processes in general. To keep with the theme of Training Day I’ll be calling the person you’re onboarding “rookie.”

Alonzo (left) and Jake (right) in Training Day. Image from The Cinemaholic.

Setting Expectations

First impressions are everything. Jake Hoyt is eager to please his potential new boss and as he sits down for his first face-to-face conversation at a diner, he begins to learn a lot about how the relationship will go. The conversation is awkward, tense, and revolves around Alonzo inflating his own ego while he demeans, berates, and continues to question Hoyt’s loyalty to his wife. This is within the first 3 minutes of them meeting.

When you onboard a new member of the team, you have the ability to set the tone for their first day, week, month, career. The expectations you set should be a guide for how to navigate with you and your team as they grow and learn. It’s not a chance to puff out your chest and show the rookie how cool you are. The rookie already knows how cool you and your company are. After all, they’ve made the decision to come work with you, so treat them with respect and help them know what expectations they’ll be aiming to meet.

Alonzo setting expectations… (image via Slash Film)

Direction Without Context is Worthless

There are several times throughout the day where Alonzo gives Jake direct guidance. Look at this, look at that, smoke this PCP, you know, standard first-day things. In one particular sequence, they are tracking a lead and going into a home with a “warrant” which both of them know to not be legit. In fact, you find out later that it’s just a Chinese takeout menu that gets handed over. The lack of context and guidance as to why they’re in the situation begins to get ugly for the rookie as Alonzo roots through rooms in search of drugs and cold hard cash.

In both instances, Alonzo is giving direction, but not explaining much of the “why,” leaving Jake to question if this will be standard procedure, if it’s a one-off, or if he’s in over his head. When these situations come up in the future, Hoyt will continue to take Alonzo’s lead (something that further feeds into Alonzo’s ego) because he won’t have any baseline for how else to react.

In order to best assist our rookies, we need to be giving clear context as to why something is done a certain way. Especially at the beginning of a career, it’s important for us to give even more context than usual. The point of the context is to help understand how to solve the problem on their own the next time it crops up. You should not be in the business of creating order takers, but the business of creating autonomous team members that are able to think for themselves and leverage each other when they’re stuck.

Meeting the Team

Optimally, the rookie would have met some of their teammates during the interview process, but if not, Day 1 is a great time for the rookie to meet the team. A core meeting or a venue for the rookie to see how the team interacts is great! An armed robbery or a frame job to get the money you need to not be murdered by the Russians is a fine choice but could be a bit too chaotic for the rookie (spoilers much?). Something like lunch, happy hour, or a game day is a great way to see the full team in action outside of the work setting.

For work situations (again, armed robbery is a definite no-go), get the rookie riding along with some of their teammates to see how they break down work, approach problems, interact with each other and drive work forward within the team. This is a great chance for the rookie to ask questions, gain context (there’s that word again), and learn some of the unwritten rules of the team.

Another great way to build trust and show a rookie the ropes is by having them ride along with you. It’s what should have happened in “Training Day,” because it gives you a chance to further set expectations. A ride-along also allows you to connect dots, point out folks on your team that are subject matter experts, and where the rookie can get some more training or mentorship from members they are meeting.

Where Alonzo Gets It Right

I already feel odd writing that header, because almost everything about Alonzo is a lesson in how not to be a leader or how not to onboard someone, BUT there is one part of Alonzo’s onboarding style I enjoy. It is the complete immersion he delivers to Jake on day one. Alonzo doesn’t beat around they bush, they get right into the action. It’s almost like Alonzo sniffs out the worst scenarios he can for Jake, culminating in leaving Jake with Smiley and his crew while he “goes to the bathroom.” Spoiler alert, Alonzo wasn’t going to the bathroom.

Things…uh…don’t go well.

While Alonzo’s intentions are all wrong, immediately getting someone involved in what their day-to-day looks like has its advantages. Can we onboard a developer and have them submit a PR on their first day? Unknown, but it starts to lead to some great questions around documentation, ease of spin-up, and a cascading list of items that end up being helpful for everyone.

Think about what the first day or first week looks like for your new rookies. Are they bogged down in paperwork or are they able to start feeling productive? The earlier a rookie can get to producing work that falls in line with their role, the better. Folks that receive effective onboarding are 30 times more likely to have high job satisfaction. Logically it makes sense, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind as you are bringing new rookies on.

Jake Hoyt’s first day does not go as planned, but there are many onboarding lessons to be gleaned from his time on the beat with Alonzo Harris. Is it a ridiculous way to compare onboarding techniques? Of course, but it’s a fun way to check yourself on what you are doing well and what you are doing poorly when it comes to your onboarding processes.

How about you, what are some things that need revisited within your onboarding? What worked well and what didn’t?

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John Hartley

Engineering leader with a passion for building and growing teams. Writing mostly about leadership and management in the tech industry. Mentor @ Plato.