ABCs of Onboarding
1. “Sink or swim” attitude. Companies blame the executive, and not themselves, for a failure. If 50% of new executives fail, then the other half succeed. It must be a shortcoming in the exec, right? After all, we can’t be that bad, can we? There is a Darwinian mindset that leaves the executive to sink or swim on their own. I think it is based on the mistaken notion that, at senior levels, people know what they are doing. The truth is, what worked well in their last job might not work well in a new environment. The problems they face are different. The culture is different. They are ignorant of the availability and quality of support resources.
2. Bestowing the mantle of change agent. Who would ever assume a position of leadership in a company and hear, “We want you to do just what the last person in this role did.”? Being a change agent comes with the territory. But calling it out invites the bull into the china shop. It can lead to assumptions of ends justifying means. It can lead somebody on the path of bad behavior. Most importantly, it activates the organization’s immune system. Before the new leader even has a chance to win people over, to earn trust or to gain alignment, the very people who will be relied upon to bring about a change agenda are plotting their strategy of disobedience.
3. Giving up too soon. Many companies mistake orientation for onboarding. A study by Korn Ferry reported that 83% of companies claim to have onboarding programs, but 53% of these programs lasted a week or shorter. Giving somebody a laptop and a benefits package is not the same as integrating them into the company. Also, there seems to be magic in The First 90 Days. I believe this is because companies drive for a judgement on whether somebody has what it takes based on the tactical “quick wins” the leader accomplishes in this limited exposure. In less time than it took to find this savior, you determine that they’re not the right person for the job. Or, while you might feel like you’ve hired a winner after observing them for three months, they are still very insecure in their position and they have not yet determined if you are right for them.
Success is often measured on whether an executive is retained for 18 months. At that point, the financials turn positive on the ROI of talent acquisition. And at that point, with the leader well entrenched in the organization, the flight risk diminishes sharply. If 90 days is too short for onboarding, 18 months is too long. From Executive Springboard’s experience with leaders in new roles, we find that this period of assimilation is about eight months. By the end of eight months, the executive is starting to make an impact, key relationships are established, the corporate culture no longer feels foreign and there are few new surprises that impede their progress.
The leader’s successful assimilation doesn’t happen on its own. To excel, there is a lot of hard work from them and from the organization. I want to provide some building blocks for companies, which I will arrange alphabetically instead of sequentially:
Air support. A very common reason why executives flame out is because they lack political savvy and support. A strong leader will develop savvy over time. But in the early going, they are at a significant disadvantage in leveraging influence, versus people who know how things work in the company. The boss has to step in and give the executive a chance, putting their finger on the scale as necessary, until this becomes a fair fight.
Buddies and mentors. Again, executives often attribute failure to not receiving the coaching they need. Junior or middle managers might get internal mentors as a resource. Senior players generally will not make themselves vulnerable with a colleague who could end up becoming the source of conflict down the road. There are several remedies for this. First, large organizations may offer a buddy system, where the leader is paired with a peer who is far removed from their area of responsibility. The head of the Dallas office of an international advertising agency might be paired with their counterpart in Vancouver. Second, the leader might establish a reverse or reciprocal mentoring relationship with a middle manager in the organization. They can provide career advice to a younger colleague while learning about the company’s culture from the junior member. Reverse mentoring is often helpful in educating an older executive about a cohort that is part of your company’s customer base. Third, external resources (e.g., an executive coach or an external mentor) can be great in providing a sounding board, offering support or holding the exec to account, when necessary.
Cultural briefing. Much of an organization’s culture is unwritten, so the assimilation process might involve more osmosis than reading or listening. But there are ways to build this into onboarding, and it is often the responsibility of the HR function. Common areas to discuss are communications preferences, valued behaviors, modes of decision-making, presence or absence of collaboration, the response to receiving bad news and where the power lies. These topics are typically far more useful than a conversation on mission, vision and values.
Do-Tell-Ask. Another oft-stated reason why executives claim things don’t work out is that there is a disconnect between their expectations and the realities they find on the job. Very often, this involves their relationship with their boss. Commonly, they heard that they would have a lot of autonomy in their role. But those first 90 days often find the CEO much closer to the executive’s business than they anticipated. The boss sees this as “trust but verify.” The exec views this as micromanagement. Unresolved, it can lead to their dissatisfaction and departure. A useful tool is to divide the new leader’s responsibilities into (1) what they can do without a discussion, (2) what they can do on their own but need to tell the boss after the fact and (3) what they need to ask permission before doing. All responsibilities will never be delineated, but this creates a language for dealing with a pain point for newly placed leaders.
Explicit 360-degree feedback. In a study by Leadership IQ, companies attributed 26% of new executive failures to them not being sufficiently coachable. This is not as straightforward as it seems. It is seldom a willful disregard of advice. More often than not, the executive never recognized a comment as advice. It was viewed as somebody thinking out loud. To avoid the executive missing the hint, it is important to hold regular feedback sessions with the executive. HR is responsible for gathering feedback up, down and across, then sharing it with the exec. Data shared should be explicit, specific and attributed. Quarterly feedback sessions provide the proper cadence during assimilation.
New manager assimilation workshop. HR or outside resources can conduct a session between the leader and their team. The process includes data collection from the team on:
The facilitator shares this data with the leader. After the leader has an hour or so to internalize, they provide responses to their team and a discussion ensues. Next steps are established, with a follow-up in a couple of months to chart progress.
Orientation. Yes, the stuff that gets done in the first week is important. And it makes a lot of sense to individualize a leader’s orientation, rather than combine it with a cohort of new recruits. The leader’s issues may be different from those of more junior employees. The leader doesn’t want to feel processed. Turn this simple part of becoming a member of your organization into something that reflects the investment you are making in them.
Pre-hire assessment. A personality assessment is a standard part of many companies’ senior talent acquisition processes. Many who read this will know the intricacies of Hogan, EQ-I, Predictive Index or DISC better than I do. Each is designed for slightly different purposes. I think there is often a missed opportunity in their use. Having decided that a candidate is unlikely to be an axe murderer, and now confident in your “GO” hiring decision, the assessment is often locked up in a file, not to be viewed again until there are succession planning discussions. Yet these tools are very helpful in mapping out their development during assimilation and in identifying the best way to communicate with them.
Having established the ABCs of onboarding, I offer a few last suggestions. You have invested a lot of time and money into selecting a leader who can make a difference in your business. As they learn to crawl, walk and run, consider how to leverage their newness. Before they learn to conform to how you do things, invite them to offer a better way. Encourage them to keep a journal of their early observations and of the questions that they might feel are too stupid to ask. Discuss these observations in your feedback sessions. There may be gems that uncover unnecessary paradigms that open up possibilities for everybody. And act with the patience that allows the leader to excel at a pace that’s right for them and for you.
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Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.