Is poor onboarding suffocating your new senior executives?
There is an inherent problem with integrating new leaders into an organization.
Onboarding is traditionally understood as a process of orienting new employees to the existing people, rules, culture, norms, processes, procedures, and behaviors they will need to be successful in their new job. The implication is that the organization works a certain way and the new employee has to adapt to fit in.
As a leader, however, your job is to continually improve your organization. That’s probably why you got hired for this role: From an organizational perspective, bringing in new leaders (from outside the existing team or organization) is one of the best ways to create change and impact. New senior executives bring new perspectives that can challenge existing assumptions and renewed energy to make things happen.
Unfortunately, many senior onboarding processes discourage new leaders from achieving these goals, even unintentionally, because of their emphasis on onboarding. It’s already an uphill battle for new leaders to challenge the status quo: natural psychology leads us to want to belong to a social group and accompany colleagues just to fit in. The typical onboarding process emphasizes the importance of this status quo and makes it even harder to challenge.
The challenge is also a simple matter of time management. The typical crash course in a complex organization often results in information overload for even the best and brightest leaders, and more importantly robs the new leader of time to think about what they see and hear and to have a constructive dialogue on their observations. But if they aren’t able to do this from the start, they’ll be more likely to accept the way things are done without question.
A new leader I worked with, for example, received a back-to-back meeting schedule for his first month that included required HR briefings, online compliance training, IT tutorials, meetings with direct reports ( individually and as a team), meetings with heads of other functions, divisional plenary meetings and introductory meetings with senior managers. (This is quite typical and often associated with necessary travel to different sites.)
By the end of the month, not only was he exhausted, but he feared that the kinds of changes he had originally thought of making would be so drastic that they would meet strong resistance and would have to be toned down. So, instead of starting with confidence, he began to doubt his ability to change the status quo.
So what is the alternative? How can your organization onboard leaders in a way that drives impact, not just onboarding? In my 30 years of coaching senior executives and advising large corporations on innovation initiatives, I’ve seen three solutions that work. These can be deployed individually or together.
Set yourself a short-term challenge
Setting a 100-day short-term results challenge for the new person early on can help guide them while achieving something of real value. It could be to streamline or strengthen a key process or help a sales team increase adoption of a particular product, for example. Then shape the onboarding process around that goal. Ask the leader to primarily know the people and processes that are essential to achieving this, rather than trying to meet everyone and learn everything about the organization. It’s impossible anyway – and there’s always time to meet the others later. (Michael Watkins is one of many authors who has written extensively about how the first 100 days are critical for new hires to have an impact.)
For example, several years ago the CEO of a global engineering company hired a new human resources manager from outside the industry; I’ll call him Rick (not his real name). Although experienced in HR, Rick was a first-time CHRO and came into the role with a mandate to transform the company’s HR function – everything from creating more efficient processes and strengthening decision-making. driven by data to building partnerships with business units and upskilling talent. revision cycle. He had a lot to learn.
The CEO acknowledged that briefing Rick on all aspects of the business involved in these elements would require extensive training and would prevent him from making significant progress on any of them for six to 12 months at best. Instead, the CEO suggested that Rick devote his first three months to a single aspect of the talent assessment cycle: improving the talent assessment process.
To do this, Rick still needed to meet with his team and other leaders and learn about the business, but he did so in an effort to reshape how successors and top talent were identified and how development and retention plans were in place. In his first 100 days, he was able to create a much more professional talent management process for the company and the board – and he also learned a lot about the company in the process. With this knowledge and a better understanding of what it took to make change happen in the business, Rick was then able to better shape his plans and priorities for the next 100 days and beyond. In this way, integration became a form of continuous learning and improvement, rather than a one-time exercise.
Customize around a question
A second approach is to ask the new leader to identify the most important things they want to learn about the business and the organization and shape much of their onboarding around that. Most high-level people in new positions have done enough due diligence on their new role to have a number of smart questions or areas of interest to them, or hypotheses they want to test. So rather than forcing the new person to learn only what you think is important, build the onboarding program together.
Not long ago, for example, a healthcare company named a new divisional CEO, whom I’ll call Esme (the company and the CEO have been disguised). The company has implemented a comprehensive program of site visits, one-to-one meetings and group sessions as part of the Esme integration.
Before throwing down the gauntlet of all those meetings, however, Esme interrupted the process and asked the outgoing CEO (who was still with the company) to help set up three half-day working sessions with him. and the appropriate people. The agenda for the premiere was to review the division’s business strategy, how it was developed, what assumptions were made, what data was used, and so on. The second session focused on the division’s key customers: what they bought, what else they wanted, who had the key relationships, and how profitable their business was. And the third session focused on the new CEO’s direct reports: a candid assessment of their performance, seniority in the role, career aspirations, and more.
With those sessions behind her, Esme began to go out and meet her people with a much better understanding of what questions to ask and what to look for. She was able to develop a plan to accelerate the division’s profitability in weeks rather than months.
Ask for critical observations
The third alternative is to ask the new person to keep a journal of observations from each meeting and each day. Then schedule a time for them to give a presentation to you, or maybe you and your leadership team, about what they learned, what didn’t make sense, what they saw do differently in previous jobs, etc. This gives the new person permission to think critically and explore alternatives as a normal part of the process. It also helps the leader develop an agenda for change early on.
For example, a new preclinical research manager for a division of a pharmaceutical company took detailed daily notes during her first two months on the job and reviewed them weekly with a trusted colleague from outside the R&D to help identify recurring themes. She then organized her observations into a draft presentation slide on key opportunities for accelerated drug development, such as more targeted use of computational science, better criteria for stopping projects, and a more intensive focus on drug development. identification of new targets. This presentation then became the basis for a series of discussions with his boss, the general manager of R&D, and a number of other colleagues. By the end of her first 90 days, she had a focused, prioritized change agenda and already had buy-in from key leaders in her field.
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Each time a new senior executive joins an organization, whether from within or from an outside company, they bring new perspectives, new ideas, and energy for change. To take full advantage of these qualities, don’t bog them down in endless learning about the organization as it is today. Instead, challenge them to find learning opportunities that will help them shape the future.