119 – Dr. Christie McMullen: Improving the Onboarding Process


In this episode, Dr. Christie McMullen, a former educator of 24 years, shares her thoughts on onboarding best practices based on her experience as an entrepreneur who helps corporations make work fun. This episode is perfect for those already in their new positions outside of the classroom.

Listen to the episode in the podcast player below, or find it on Apple Podcast or Spotify.

Improving Onboarding Processes at Companies


Hey Christie, thank you so much for being here today.


Thank you, Daphne. I’m super excited to have the opportunity.


Christie, I am so excited to start this conversation and we’re going to do a deep dive for all of those former teachers in the audience because you are very well-equipped to share some insight into what life beyond the classroom may look like and some strategies to help support you in your new role. But, you also are a former teacher, so I’d love to start off with just learning a little bit about you and how you landed in what you’re doing today.


Sure. So I think I came out of the womb being a teacher, quite honestly. From the time I was five years old, I was teaching my dolls and I was one of the few who went to college so that I could be a teacher. That’s what I knew I wanted to do. So I started out teaching science, all the sciences in high school. And what ended up happening is I moved from North Carolina to Florida and when I did I was asked to teach a class called Foundations of School Success, which was basically teach the kids to be good people and to survive high school. And I was actually really excited until they gave me 35 students at a time for 120 minutes and said, here, teach them to be good people. No curriculum or anything, just have fun.

What ended up happening is I did an okay job with it, so they gave me a new program the following year called AVID, and I was the first teacher to teach AVID in our district. AVID is a international organization now. And so fast-forward I became the resident expert with one year of experience and left the classroom that following year to train other teachers to do what I was doing in my classroom. So I became a teacher of teachers and that teacher of teacher role really morphed and I’ve been teaching adults really for 17 of my 24 years of educational experience.

But it shifted in the last year and I’ve started teaching business people how to get their point across in a way that people will actually remember because I would argue that every person on the planet is teaching somebody something every single day, but most of them are kind of bad at it because they haven’t been taught how. So I teach people how to make work fun so people don’t quit. So, I’ve always been a teacher, I think I will always be a teacher, but my journey really went kind of like this instead of your traditional 20 years in the classroom.

Dr. Christie shares what led her to transition outside of education


At what point did you decide to make the pivot from working inside of education and teaching teachers to going into the corporate world and teaching CEOs and hiring managers and new employees?


Great question. It was about a year ago.

I wrote a book in 2020 called Learning Can Stick. And when I wrote the book, the idea behind it was how do you get inside an educator’s head and use it in other spaces. Having a conversation with your 16 year old about whether or not they should get a car for their birthday. Training three people in a new Salesforce system or training a room full of people. How do you make every interaction safe, logical, fun and memorable?

And so the book came out in 2020, but in 2022 I realized learning actually made people think teacher, and I really didn’t want them to just think teacher, I wanted them to think business. And so I rebranded a little and came up with AIM, which stands for analyze, improve, move. And for the last year I have been working with organizations that are in healthcare or mortgage brokers or appraisal companies, all these different people, people who hire people like random people, and I am now employing all of those teaching skills with them.

So, your question was, “How did I pivot?” About a year ago I really realized, probably five years ago realized it, but did something about it a year ago that everything that we as teachers know how to do are something that everybody on the planet needs to know how to do. We just have to get that into their hands in a way that they can digest it.


Yeah, so let’s talk about that from the corporate viewpoint because I have also had those types of roles where I am in charge of onboarding new employees.

When I was working as an instructional designer, some of the resources that I was creating were for external use and then many of them were actually for internal use as well. And I was the person who greeted everyone as they came into the company, and I taught them about the company, and I worked with the sales enablement team. I felt like I was able to use a lot of my skills as a teacher to help make sure that I understood what the objective was.

Dr. Christie breaks down the “analyze, improve, move” onboarding strategy

You don’t want to learn everything about the company in the first day. There’s no need to. But what are you teaching that is best practice for those onboarding resources?


Oh, that’s a good question. And I like the way you framed that because I think teachers are the most underestimated group of humans on the planet as well. And the worst culprit of that are themselves—every teacher underestimates their talent. What you’re able to do in a classroom is amazing. It’s multi-tasking at its finest. So, I think the biggest thing that I have discovered or that has translated is that “analyze, improve, move” concept when you’re onboarding.

You need to look at your current systems. Analyze what are you doing right now that is good, and what are you doing right now that isn’t working? Are you telling the new employee everything they need to know in the first four hours that they’re on your campus even though they’re not going to use most of those things for six months or more? Or are you just focused on the three things they need to know? Where’s the bathroom? What do you do if you have trouble with something and where’s your computer? And so bite size chunks. “Analyze.”

Then the “improve” part of that is really. . . Okay, so you’re doing it this way, and it’s not right. How do you make that better? How do you better onboard your employees so that they have all the things that they need and can move forward? And that’s where the “safe, logical, fun and memorable” part comes in that we can talk about later. But it’s essentially how you choose to interact with people and what you say to them in what chunks.

And then the “move” part is the part that I would say 95% of organizations forget to do. And that’s changing the way you do things. It’s one thing to analyze all day long and say, “We should do this and this would be great.” But if you don’t change practice, then you’re never going to get different results. And so the “move” part is about the reminder that it takes 18 times of doing something in front of others to master it. But we often will say, “I tried that in that one meeting and it didn’t work. I’ll never do it again.” And so also with the onboarding process. Okay, you tried it with this first group of recruits. Now you need to do it again and again and again—until you actually master it.


That’s really interesting. And do you find that people are scared? And this is something that’s really going to be universal. Schools have the exact same issues as corporations when it comes to this type of experience. Do you find that people who are in charge of making the decisions are scared to change something for 18 times if it fails? Because everybody’s, one, going to say, “You wasted our time, you made unnecessary change!” And how do you alleviate that concern and make it where it’s also respecting the employee’s time as well?


Yeah, that’s such a great question. And I would say practice makes perfect. We know that to be true. But it’s also about creating a safe space for mistakes to be made. Because mistakes are how we learn. And you can fail forward, or you can fail backwards. You’re going to fail. So it’s also about creating a culture in your environment that says, we are going to fail forward. We are going to try new things. We are going to accept when we don’t know how to do something. We’re going to make mistakes, but we’re going to make them together. And, so, I think I would rewind it all the way back to my motto, which is, “If you don’t make work fun, people quit.”

So, fun means that your talents are respected. That you know what your talents are, and you’re actually able to utilize them in your job. That you are equipped to do your job well. And being equipped to do your job—well you are in the right seat on the bus. You have everything that you need to be successful and your voice is heard. That’s fun.

People think fun is going to on a happy hour or playing some kind of escape room game. And yes, that’s fun, but the real fun is about evoking emotion. And your employees are going to feel more connected to the work if you evoke emotion.

So your question is, “How do you get a team to recognize the value of this?” The first thing you have to do is create a safe, psychologically safe, environment for trying new things. Change and recognizing that it’s a process. So that’s honestly step one. And if an organization isn’t willing to do that, chances are good they’re never going to look any different. And the sad part of that is it’s 2023. You can’t do things the way you did in 2015—or 2022 even. So, if you’re not at the top willing to change, then it is going to be a little uncomfortable. But if you recognize that it’s a process, and you embrace the mistakes, it is going to change everything.

Dr. Christie shares why allowing a new employee to be authentic is essential for them to get the most out of onboarding


What advice do you have for those who are new in their employment journey, and they are just feeling like the onboarding process might not be meshing with their learning style? And this could go on both spectrums. It could be someone who needs everything in a very organized file of tell me everything that’s going to pop up in the next six months. “I need to know every acronym. I need to know that there’s a resource library that I can always fall back on.” Or, someone who’s saying “that’s overwhelming to me, and I just need to know what I need to know this week, and I need reassurance that I’m doing a good job.”


So I think the way you ask the question is exactly what needs to happen in the workplace. And that’s being your authentic self. So you put it out there. I know you were role-playing. However, “I need all the information. I need everything in front of me.” Or “you’re giving me too much information.” I think what happens with employees, especially new employees, is they’re too afraid to speak up and be their authentic selves. And there’s a lot of stigma, I guess, around being your authentic self because we think that that just gives people permission to be a jerk or to say whatever they’re thinking. And that’s not what I mean by “your authentic self.” I mean showing up as your authentic self is saying, “I don’t understand. I have no idea what you just said to me and I’m asking that. Repeat it, so that I get this right.” Versus, “Oh gosh, I don’t understand, I’m not going to say anything. I’m going to be real quiet, and then I’m going to freak out by myself and get it wrong.” We, as the leaders in this system, we have to create the space where our employees feel safe enough to ask those questions.

But your question was about the new employees. How do you gain the confidence to speak up? You frame it around, “I want to do this well.” If I’m coming at it as a new employee, and I say, “I want to do this job really well and in order to do this job well, I need X, Y, and Z,” then your authentic self just gave you the runway to be successful at your job. Versus, “I want to be really good at this. I’m not going to tell anybody I want to be really good at this. I’m just not going to do those modules because that’s not me.” Then you just look belligerent. So, it’s really about being honest.


What would you say if the company just doesn’t have the capacity to provide X, Y, Z? They’re a newer company, and they don’t have a robust learning program or video modules to walk you through how to do everything.


So, then as the new employee, I think I would say, “Okay, so who knows how to do that, and can I spend some time with them?” Because somewhere in the organization is someone who knows how to do that thing. And we need to tap into that brilliance as well and say, “Can I shadow that person for a day?”

So let’s rewind all the way back to teaching. We’re talking to people who have been in education in some space or another. It’s like that student teaching timeframe. If you are a student teacher, then you’re in a safe place with somebody else who’s overseeing what it is that you’re doing. It’s that apprenticeship concept. If you can bring that into your workspace and say, “I know you’re busy, and I know you have a lot going on. Can I just watch?”

So, our daughter just turned 22, and she decided she wanted to teach kindergarten at the beginning of this year. She didn’t go to school to be a teacher. She went to school for psychology with a minor in child development. So she knew kids. She didn’t know how to teach. She didn’t get a student teaching experience, but she got a job. And in her first position, unfortunately, she got zero support from the powers to be well. The problem with that is she begged, please, let me just watch somebody else do it. I haven’t been in a kindergarten classroom since I was in kindergarten. And the principal unfortunately said, sorry, you’d have to do that on your own time. It was kind of a mess. But I say that because had she had that apprenticeship opportunity—had she had the chance to watch it—would’ve changed everything. So, now fast forward six months. Aand she’s now a reading coach at a wonderful school where she is learning all kinds of things as an apprentice.

So, your original question was about, “Okay, so what if there isn’t a system in place to allow for the learning to happen in the way that the person needs it?” Then the person needs to advocate to be allowed to watch because watching is the best way to learn. Doing.


I think that it is important to acknowledge—that when you’re asking these requests—making them smaller and more reasonable than “I want you to change where I sit and I’m going to sit next to this person and ask them all day long.” Or you say, “Can I have two 30 minute check-ins with this person? I’ll compile the questions that I have as I start learning, and then I’ll just check in with them those two times.” Something that isn’t necessarily going to throw off the entire organization’s goals, but is just you advocating for what will help support you move faster inside of this career.


And I really like the way you said that, Daphne. Because that’s the difference—asking for something unreasonable or asking for something that will immediately assist you in doing your job. And not disrupt the other person in the process.

Dr. Christie details why asking for help is not shameful—it’s using all of your resources


And, unfortunately, I think one of the disadvantages that so many teachers have is [that] we are coming from the classroom where we do not have peer collaboration. We don’t really know what an expectation or a norm is in a corporate environment, and we’re coming from these work environments that are pretty unprofessional and lack the collaboration and support that most corporations have.

So when we say “it needs to be a reasonable ask,” you may have no idea what a “reasonable ask” is. And that might be something that you just ask. And explain, “Hey, I want to ask, but what would be something that would be reasonable?” What would be something that you’ve done in the past to support other people who are struggling in this way?


As we’re thinking about supporting new employees I think, again, that authenticity piece. And being willing to be who you are is going to help. I think you’re right. . . in educational settings, we’re often not encouraged to do that. We’re supposed to fit in a mold. And it’s supposed to look a certain way, and this is the way you’re supposed to do things. And great leaders recognize that it’s the individuality that makes the person an asset. In [corporate] work environments, you will often find people who recognize the value of the differences.


One thing that I’ve noticed about teachers as well. . . myself included. I am guilty of this. Is we do not want to burden other people. I, at least, can speak on my own behalf. When I came from the classroom, I was very stubborn, and I wanted to figure it out entirely alone. And I think that that was due to years in the classroom of being thrown books and [told,] “Figure it out on your own. No one’s going to come and support you.” And then you don’t realize how much extra weight you are carrying due to putting yourself in that position. Whether it’s trying to learn a new program, or even rewriting your resume. Trying to say, “I can just figure this out on my own,” might take hours longer when all it takes is a five-minute ask. Or talking to your human resources manager or investing in a program or whatever it is to take that off of you.


And I would go as far as to say that is somewhat generational. So, the Gen Zers that are just now coming along and entering the workforce now are more likely to ask for help than anybody above them. And I’m saying that as a mother of 22 year olds. I watch them go on the internet and find the answers, they’re not going to spend more than three minutes frustrated with something. They’re going to go, “I’ll Google it.” Any older than that are of the mindset [that] “I have to figure it out, not I have to look for the answer.” And I think part of that—and this is I’m only speaking for Christie, I can only say me—is it feels like cheating. It feels like cheating. If I had to go find the answer somewhere else, I should just know. No, you shouldn’t. It’s using all the resources.

So funny story about when I was in college, which was 1,000 years ago. So, we’re not going to talk about how old I am, but we are going talk about the fact that when I was in college, I took biology. I was a biology major. First semester, first class—major weed out course. And the professor said to us, easily 10 times and in the first two classes, “Use all your resources, use all your resources, you use all your resources.” So, [to] me, resources [mean] notes, books. That’s what I thought my resources were. This was before the internet was really a thing, quite honestly. So, books and notes and everybody failed the first test. . . except one kid. And this kid sat in the front, and we’re like, oh, sure, of course he got it. Well, he got it, and the professor actually said, how did you make an A? And he said, well, my brother took this course a year ago, and he told me to study the pictures in the book because that’s where all the questions came from. And sure enough, every question came from the graphics, and the pictures in the book, not the words, I didn’t even look at the graphics. But I didn’t use all my resources.

What the professor was trying to teach us is that people are your resources. Not just stuff. And I think if we can help any new hire recognize that the human capital around you is where the resources are, that would change everything.


Yes, 100%. And I think it is also the organization’s job to do some labeling. This team is going to help you with this. This is the person who’s going to help you with this. You have a question about X, go see this person over here. I’ve seen that done well in both of the companies that I worked for beyond the classroom. Even the one that was an entirely remote environment, I felt pretty comfortable knowing who I was able to ask for different expertises.

I know that you mostly are working with corporations. So, I kind of want to go back to that a tiny bit, too. Do you help them with setting realistic 30-60-90-day goals, and what does that look like?


So yes, and sometimes it’s time constraint. Okay, what should it look like 30 days out? 60 days out? But often it’s really about creating the systems to begin with. What are your systems for onboarding a new employee? What systems are already in place? When somebody has a question, where do they go? How do I find out as an employee what each department does? Those are the kinds of systems I typically work with. What you’re saying about the timeline is really, “Okay, so now that we’ve done that, what are we going to move on? In 30 days what should look different? In 60 days what should look different? In 90 days what should look different?” And those vary depending on what we find in the analysis phase.

If they are a hot mess, and they haven’t even thought about their onboarding system, then what it looks like in 30 days is probably not going to be dramatically different because it’s going to take a little while to untangle the mess. So, it’s also making sure that whatever the organization is. . . where they start and where they finish won’t necessarily look the same—but the route for getting there is what’s going to determine how successful they are at the end.

Dr. Christie shares the importance of creating psychologically safe workspaces


So what advice do you give during these interactions? Let’s go to that piece that you were talking about, the “safe, logical, fun and memorable” piece. How do you encourage those interactions to become more “safe, logical, fun and memorable?”


Such a great question. And it’s really about educating them first. So, we talk about how you set up a psychologically safe environment. We’re not talking about OSHA safe, but the psychologically safe that people know they can make mistakes. That they can ask questions. It’s about learning people’s names. It’s about human interaction. It’s about knowing something about your employees. And so I ask those questions. “What do you currently do to make sure that people know that they belong here? Do you know their names? Can you pronounce them correctly? Are you thoughtful about who you introduce them to or how you introduce them?” All of those components and are involved with “safe.” And it’s about creating an environment where people know it’s okay to not know.

And my favorite example of “logical.” Logical means you have a plan, and you stick to the plan. But you’re not the only one that knows the plan. So, frequently, we will have situations where I know the plan, but I didn’t bother to tell you the plan, and now we’re both confused. I can’t figure out why you didn’t get it, and you’re like, “You never told me.” It’s kind of like if your boss calls you into his office and says, “I need you in my office in an hour.” Well, for the next hour you’re going to be panicked about, well—about what? And, “What do I need to be prepared for?” And, “I don’t know.” Instead of saying, “I need you in my office in an hour, Daphne, but we’re going to be talking about the Smith file. And it’s because I’m meeting with them in two hours, and I just need to know where we are on the project.” Okay, great. I can now prepare, and so can they. “Logical” is about giving people the tools they need to be successful.

“Fun” means everything I said before: People’s talents are being utilized; People’s personalities; you’re in the right seat on the bus; you make people laugh because we do not fire neurons in our brain unless there’s some sort of emotion tied to what we’re doing. So, it’s about evoking that emotion in people. And so the “fun” can come in a lot of different forms. I literally give scratch and sniff stickers to adults, and they love it. It’s about establishing the fun.

And then the “memorable” piece is my favorite. [It] is all about circling back. So it’s, “Sprinkle, splash. Flood. Drip, drip, drip information.” The “sprinkle, splash” is like the preview to a movie. That’s email that says, “We’re going to meet on Thursday, and here are the four things we’re going to talk about.” Or, “Welcome to the company! Here are the three things you can expect in your first week.”

And then the “flood” is you’re meeting with HR, your first interaction, your training session, your whatever. But floods do not allow you to absorb all the water. Most of the information is lost in runoff. So, you have to “drip, drip, drip”—three drips at least.

The “drip, drip, drip” is the water falling off the trees after the storm. It’s the follow up email that says, “We met on Thursday. Here’s what we talked about. Here’s what you need to do next. I’ll check in with you on Friday.” And then on Friday you actually do the check-in. And then the following week you say, “How’s it really going?” So the “drip, drip, drip” is about circling back around to make sure that people knew what they were supposed to get out of the interaction. Does that make sense?


Yeah, of course. And I love all of that. There’s just so much that you went over in a short period of time. And I know that we only have about five more minutes. I’m going to power through a couple more really quick questions because I know that there are transitioning teachers who are listening to this as well.

Dr. Christie explains the different titles of positions that are involved in corporate onboarding

While we covered so much about the onboarding process and what to look for in an onboarding process, there also might be people who are listening to this who are thinking, “Well, I would love to be part of the team that actually does this type of work.” And so I’d love to just get into some of the titles of the people at organizations who would be responsible for these types of changes.


Sure. I work sometimes directly with the CEO. It depends on the size of the company. If your CEO is hands-on still and involved with a smaller company, then they are the change agent. Sometimes, it’s a Chief People Officer. Sometimes, it’s an HR person who recognizes that they’ve got to change the onboarding system specifically, so they work there. It could also be learning and design folks, people who are doing the training. It genuinely depends on the structure of the organization, but this is going to be the person who is charged with making people better at their jobs. In every organization that’s a slightly different title, but it’s the person who is going to ensure that people are having fun at work, so they don’t quit.


And, like you said, sometimes that’s a CEO, if it’s a tiny company. Right now we are a company of less than five people. I am the CEO, and I would be responsible for this type of work. But I also think it’s a really important time to start to address the difference in companies. Because very large established companies, my gut is like [any] over 75 employees, probably already have this system in place. And they are going to be harder to have complete huge changes. Their onboarding system is usually pretty well figured out at that point. But smaller companies—startup companies—are the ones where there’s less rigid rules.

What size would you say of the types of companies you work with the most, what kind of patterns are you seeing there?

Dr. Christie shares common patterns she sees in her work with corporations


I would say so most of the companies that I work with are 150 employees or less. For this type of work, where I’m coming in. And some of them have been as small as 10. So we’ve got these 10 people or we’ve got these 25 leaders of 17 different venues [that] come together. Let’s talk about from a leadership perspective what this should look like, and then deploy. So, it is typically smaller organizations. However, like I’m working with Aetna, and we’re going to transform how they do their conferences because that’s a whole different experience. When you’re spreading your word bigger than just your organization or even for your organization, how can you do that in a way that is “safe, logical, fun and memorable?” Because you don’t send 400 people to a conference and hope they get something right? You better guarantee they get something or it was [a] wasted investment. So how can you increase your ROI on the experience?

To go back to your question, the idea behind if we’re trying to change the onboarding system for employees. This phase over here. If you just want to create a better experience for humans, that’s going to fit over here. But either way, it is typically your companies that are willing to do it a little differently to get different results. And that could be big or small, but it is often smaller because it’s hard to move the Titanic.


Yeah. And there are types of people that would thrive in both types of environments, a large company that already has resources or a company that has a little bit less instruction behind it. I feel like [with] startup companies, there’s a lot of ambiguity there if you’re going to figure out how to do this. And some people really thrive in that environment and some people absolutely despise it. But I love the work that you are doing, and I wish that I could talk to you for so much longer.

Christie, if there are people who are listening who are already working in companies, and they might want to bring you in to better support their onboarding or just want to connect with you to learn from you, where can our audience members find you?


Yeah, so aimwithus.com is my website, and you can find all my things there. But you can also just look me up on LinkedIn, it’s Dr. Christie McMullen, and that’s where I spend the majority of my energy. Not that I’m not on the other socials—I am. So, if you Google my name, that’s the easiest way. But the idea behind LinkedIn is that this is really for the business space. I want more than anything. . . teachers, if you’re listening to this and you don’t have a LinkedIn account, I suggest you get one. Because that’s really where you discover, “Oh my gosh, what I do is actually beneficial outside of the classroom.”

I was listening to one of your other podcasts recently, and it was talking about the fact that teachers don’t know what else is out there because all they’ve ever done is in the education space. And just because you were an English teacher does not mean you have to be a copywriter. It means that you have a skillset over here, and it translates into a lot of things. Look me up on LinkedIn or just aimwithus.com.


Absolutely. Thank you so much, Christie, for being here today. This was so wonderful.


Thank you for having me. It was a lot of fun.

Mentioned in the episode:

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