Finding the right individual to fill a vacant executive role is difficult and almost always takes longer than anyone hoped. It’s understandable, therefore, for the company to want new executives to “hit the ground running.” Sadly, the pent-up desire for the leader to get to work often results in just the opposite effect. Without proper preparation and assimilation, the likelihood of success is very low. Here are some of our recommendations about how to set a new executive up for success:
Executive Onboarding – What to Consider?
An executive stepping into a new role needs onboarding support during their first six months at the very least – and that’s no different whether the executive is a new hire or a promotion from within. Note that our recommendation for onboarding programs for new executives exceeds the conventionally accepted “First 90 Days.”
We find that the first 90 days are critically important but relatively easy, focused on making new connections, reading the background documents, listening in on key meetings and hopefully finding a small “quick win” or two. It’s during the SECOND 90 days when expectations begin to rise, but also when the lustre of the new situation begins to fade, exposing some of the real problems and tangible barriers to success that might have been neglected or minimized during the interview process.
Why is Having an Executive Onboarding Process Important?
The facts are sobering – 50-70% of new executives fail within 18 months of stepping into a new role. And fully three quarters of new executives feel that they were not adequately supported as they transitioned into their new role. Worth noting that in all the research the findings did not vastly differ based on whether the new executive was promoted from within or a new hire. Also important is the fact that just because a leader has risen to the senior executive level does not mean that their successful onboarding can assumed or neglected. Any new leader, no matter what level, will appreciate and benefit from conscious attention to the process of joining a new company and leadership team.
Designing the Executive Onboarding Program
Ask what the new executive needs and wants from their own executive onboarding process. The new leader may not have specific interests or requirements, but if they do they’ll feel more welcomed and appreciated if they’re asked and those needs are incorporated into their onboarding program from the outset.
Start before they start. There is a lot you can do to support a new leader before they ever actually begin in their role. New business cards, computer, HR paperwork – these basics don’t have to wait until the first day on the job and in fact getting them out of the way can ensure that the first few days are focused where they should be – on getting to know key people and important business issues.
Have a plan. There’s a difference between making a list of activities and people that might be helpful and having a thoughtful, prioritized, sequenced onboarding process. Consider the relationships they will need and the networks (internal and external) they’ll be part of and create an onboarding program that steps them logically into their new role. Plan with the premise that all colleagues and influential groups are not equal – allow extra time with key people, whether that be longer initial meetings or multiple touch points over the first few weeks.
Confront and design for the realities. If new executives don’t often join the leadership team, the process of building relationships will take longer than if there is more frequent change in the group because the longer-standing the relationships the more difficult it is to introduce new players. If there is language or jargon unique to the organization (there always is!) create a glossary or reference list so they are able to follow along early on. Every company and culture has idiosyncrasies – be open about them and support a new leader’s familiarization process.
Schedule regular check-ins focused on the onboarding. Given the typical pent-up demand for the new executive to be up and running, it’s tempting to quickly start to focus one-on-one check-ins on the needs of the business. For at least the first six months, and ideally for the first year, ensure that in every one-on-one with their boss the new executive has a chance to reflect on how they’re feeling about the process of getting up and running, and that there is support available if they need it.
Be patient. Accept that while there may be “quick wins” and early evidence of progress, the full process of settling in and becoming fully productive will take longer than anyone would like. Nine months is common, a full twelve month business cycle more realistic.
What Can New Executives Do to Maximize Their Own Onboarding Success?
The most successful onboarding process will be jointly owned – the executive will take their share of responsibility for getting what they need as quickly as possible so they can be a positive contributor sooner rather than later.
Suggest that the new leader prepare a “how to work with me” document they can share with direct reports and peers. If they’ve never written one of these before it will provide a good opportunity for reflection about what kind of leader they are and what’s important to them in terms of culture and interaction with their team.
Set up a contact- whether an internal mentor or an external coach – with whom the new leader can have confidential, safe conversations. In the midst of navigating the challenges of getting to know a new organization and understanding a new company culture, it is hugely helpful to have a confidante with whom the leader can process confusion, frustration and all of the other natural emotions that accompany taking on a big change.
Openly discuss when, how and with whom to raise issues. New senior leaders focused on making a good impression and creating positive impact quickly may be reluctant to disclose it if they are struggling or are concerned about their ability to succeed. Ensure that there’s an agreed process and contact – whether a member of the executive team, the most senior leader, the HR leader or the recruiter – where the new hire can be transparent if they are worried about their ability to deliver against expectations.
First – Onboarding, Second – Integration
It’s all well and good to help the new executive land softly and comfortably. But what happens beyond that?
As the long-time expert on onboarding, Michael Watkins says, new leaders need more than onboarding. They need integration – they need to fit seamlessly and smoothly such that the fact that they are new becomes invisible as quickly as possible. While we have yet to ascertain best practices in this realm what we do know is that relationships take time, trust gets established in many ways, and the nuances of culture can only be discovered experientially.
Consider social interactions as part of the integration process. Intact teams, especially long-standing ones, often have activities or events they share, and without access to those informal times of connection the new executive’s ramp up time will be longer than it need be.
Create forums for new executives to mix with other functions and multiple levels of the organization, whether in a “town hall” format or a “fireside chat” informal gathering. The more touchpoints new senior executives have the clearer a view of the organization and its issues and opportunities they’ll be able to formulate.
Make time for personal chat. Particularly where the majority of interactions are by video conference, the casual social interactions that form the basis of personal connections between colleagues have all but disappeared. Paying attention to those opportunities for personal connection is important for everyone, and even more so when integrating a new leader.
Executive Onboarding Gone Wrong
We were doing 360 feedback on a senior executive who’d been in their role for 5 years. Numerous times through the feedback interviews we heard the executive referred to as “new.” What was more astonishing was that we were directed to speak with “the other new executive” for insight as to how to assimilate and succeed – and that leader had been with the company for – wait for it – 10 years. Onboarding may have gone just fine, but clearly assimilation and integration still needed work.
“Check the box” onboarding programs don’t allow for the process to be dynamic and tailored. A program that lacks strategy and structure leaves too much to chance. Customizing a plan that allows for the executive to get to know the company and for the company to get to know them over time will increase the chances that important relationships get started off on the right foot and are allowed to flourish over time.
Rather than thinking of a new executive as having to either “sink or swim,” consider how the organization can provide buoyancy support and even wind in the sails as the new leader joins the team. Onboarding programs can take many forms, and for new executives to co-create their onboarding programs with key influencers in the welcoming company will increase the probability of long term success.