How Not to Waste a Senior Hire
The reason why you went with a senior hire is clear: You want someone with experience who will require less onboarding and can solve problems faster, someone who can work on more complex tasks, someone who can understand and bring your system — maybe even your organization — to the next level.
So you do a shorter onboarding (it’s a senior, right?) and start throwing some tasks at them. You probably start with simpler tasks and expect them to gradually build up to more complex stuff until they reach their full potential.
Everyone Wants a Senior but Loves a Mid
This approach works well with mid-level engineers, as they are expected to learn more, and if they learn well, you can shape them into what you need quite easily. Let’s be honest — everyone loves a good mid since they do most of the actual work. But you probably didn’t hire a senior to turn them into a code monkey.
The challenge of hiring a senior is that it implies great expectations, but great expectations can lead to great disappointment if managed poorly. And that disappointment may be felt on both sides — yours and your hire’s.
The senior comes with experience, which is why you went for a senior, but this experience comes with a burden that is often overlooked. The amount of experience is directly proportional to their attitude on how to do things the “right” way. And in different companies, a lot of things are done differently, often for a good reason. And often for bad reasons as well.
The question is how much you really want the senior to unlearn — and how much you’re ready to unlearn yourself.
How to Let Seniors Be Seniors from the Start
It’s normal to expect a new employee to learn, especially in the initial period, but it is easy to forget that this is an opportunity to learn from them as well. This is one of the reasons you went for a senior, isn’t it?
So here are a few ideas you could try out with a new senior hire:
Give Them a Challenging Task Early On
Instead of gradually increasing the complexity of tasks through an extended period, let the senior take a challenging larger task, like proposing an architecture of something new. Have the senior pick a narrower domain that they feel comfortable in and give them space and time to show what they can do.
Do a review of the proposal with other seniors or architects in the form of an open discussion, letting the senior present their solution. Of course, the senior’s first try might not be a perfect fit, but use that as an opportunity for discussion and coaching with other senior staff. That way, you’re also allowing the senior hire to connect with other seniors in the company.
Similar to giving a larger task, let the senior do a research task early on — something that requires trying out different approaches to a problem, digging through documentation or trying different technologies.
Let the senior present and discuss their findings in front of the team. This is the type of work you hired a senior for.
Comparing Architecture and Approaches
Relatively early after initial onboarding, once the senior has an overall picture of the company, have the senior compare your company’s architecture and processes to those in their previous job(s).
Regardless of whether they worked in a much smaller system or a completely different domain, you may still find some good ideas and details that apply to you.
And even if there is no direct comparison or advice they can offer at that point, just letting the senior explain their understanding will help them grasp your architecture earlier — as you truly understand something once you can explain it to someone else.
Listening to their experience and opening such a discussion will move your relationship closer to the one you’d want to have with your senior hire.
Let Them Suggest Improvements
After they feel somewhat settled, a few months in, let the senior write a list of suggested improvements. You may be surprised by the fresh perspective.
If some of their ideas are applicable, let them drive the change. You will get the benefits of the improvement, and the senior will start to feel useful since they’re making meaningful contributions.
Good People Do Slip Away from Good Companies
What all these suggestions have in common is that they try to act on the expectations on both ends of a hiring agreement. You expect the senior hire to behave like a senior, and the senior hire expects to be treated as one. If you are both reasonable, there is an understanding that this takes time.
But I’ve seen many cases where senior hires give up in the first year because the position doesn’t live up to the promises or because of unsatisfied employers who expected more from a senior hire. And I’ve seen good people slip away from good companies in that way.
So don’t let the senior drown in your company before they learn to swim through your structures. Set up the onboarding in a way that lets them start delivering small chunks of senior behavior early on, with a closed feedback loop. In the process, don’t forget that the learning opportunities are mutual from the beginning. Maybe especially in the beginning.