Having 30/90-day conversations with new employees is a practice that should consistently be carried out. These conversations are important for engaging the new hire. They are also valuable for you, as a leader, to gain a new perspective on your organization and make changes to better your school district.

joann sternke leader coachJoAnn Sternke, former Superintendent of the Pewaukee School District (PSD) in Wisconsin, knows first-hand what these conversations should look like, and most importantly, those key questions leaders should be asking each and every new hire.

We have recently had the honor of onboarding Sternke to our Studer Education℠ team. From her expertise as a leader of schools to her fresh perspective here in our office, here is what we learned from Sternke on how to be most effective and intentional in carrying out these 30/90-day conversations:

Being a former superintendent for the Pewaukee School District in WI, what were some of your best practices for 30/90-day conversations with new employees?

“The 30/90-day interviews are not only good for developing relationships and making sure people feel listened to and valued, but through the hardwiring of this process we were able to capitalize on learning opportunities.”

When having that first 30-day conversation with new employees, Sternke says a question she always asked was, “What was your previous school district doing well that we could be doing better here?” Sternke says something she learned from this practice was that Pewaukee’s transportation was not as efficient as systems elsewhere. As a result of consistently asking this specific question during each 30-day conversation, she could immediately take action and find solutions for the transportation system.

“These conversations helped me make bigger decisions. If I hadn’t asked, I never would have known. I really like the idea of a fresh perspective. I think when you talk to someone within 30-days of being a part of your organization, you really have the chance to see those powerful, initial perceptions that they bring about in your organization. Listening and asking those probing questions is tremendously important.”

For the 90-day conversation, Sternke says another key question to ask is, “Who is someone in your previous district that, if we had an opening, would be a good fit for this district?”

“It’s such a good question for attracting new talent. Anything you can do to make sure you are developing and attracting talent is really important. The question allows you to get to know the employee better and learn more information from that fresh perspective.”

In our experience at Studer Education℠, superintendents should be really mindful about onboarding. They should be intentional about key words and key messages sent to the new hire. Sternke elaborates on specific onboarding actions she feels made a big difference for new hires at PSD.

“One of those intentional onboarding practices includes taking all new teachers on a school bus ride around the town and neighborhoods in which their students live. They feel what it’s like to be a child in the district. I am always on the bus with them. We go all over the community so that we see our boundaries, the homes in the community, and the areas where children are in poverty. This really gives them a chance to see the community first-hand.”

Another key practice put into place within those first 90-days is a lunch with board members and new hires. Seating is intentional so that board members can meet new teachers and form a relationship with them. At this lunch, the board gives the new hires a gift certificate from the booster club for spirit wear so that they can dress in Pewaukee clothing for the first day. The PTO also gives them a gift certificate to outfit their classrooms.

“Anything you can do to build the relationship is key. It’s not about the stuff, it’s about the employee realizing they are cared for.”

What are some best practices that facilitated retention of your employees in the first 90-days and throughout the year?

“There are so many opportunities here. One idea is to send an email on the employee’s birthday. When you do that, there is an opportunity to reinforce the mission and thank the employee for their work in the district. This is very easy to do in this day and age and sends a powerful message.”

On teacher appreciation days throughout the year, Sternke took the opportunity to send out emails to parents asking them to write a note to a teacher that has meant something to his or her child.

“This gives teachers the opportunity to hear the impact they have. It’s so important to accentuate the heroic work they do.”

Being a new employee here at Studer Education℠ and now experiencing these practices from the other side, has there been anything particularly helpful to you in your first 30 days? Anything that has resonated/stuck out to you?

“I don’t think there has been an employee who hasn’t gone out of his or her way in our offices to be welcoming, helpful, and to just really make sure I not only have the information I need but build a relationship as well. Something that has struck me is the desire on everyone’s part to make me feel like a part of the team—not the ‘new kid on the block.’ I have witnessed the closeness of the team, was sent flowers, and even taken to a Blue Wahoo’s baseball game. That has all been very powerful.”

Any advice and/or tips for fellow superintendents/leaders on having these important conversations and retaining employees in those first 90 days and throughout the year?

“My advice would be to do anything you can do to make a best practice a habit and a ritual. For me, I write three ‘thank-you’ notes first thing every morning. That is a ritual that has become non-negotiable. It makes no difference if I’m on the road or in the office. It starts your day off right and puts you in the right mind-set to ensure you are grateful to the people you work with.”

Systematically carrying out best practices in the first 30 and 90 days for new hires sends a message, sets the climate, and positively presents the culture and values within your district. What practices does your organization currently have in place to ensure employees are heard, retained, and valued? How can you implement some of the same processes as described by Sternke in your district? We challenge you to make a habit of one communication method, either an email or hand-written note, that expresses your gratitude for those you serve.




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