Tips For Onboarding Top Executives

Female executive contemplating job options, highlighting the need for smart onboarding.
The failure to provide a deep understanding of culture is just one of the big mistakes companies make when onboarding new leadership.

Hiring a senior leader is a significant investment that, in the majority of cases, does not pay off. According to research conducted by the Corporate Executive Board, 50 percent to 70 percent of executives fail within the first 18 months of taking over their new role. While there are a number of factors that can contribute to these failures, poor onboarding is a primary one. Research conducted by McKinsey and Company has shown that 74 percent of new leaders say their onboarding experience was inadequate in preparing them for their new role.

There are many motivations for organizations to provide senior leadership with the onboarding it needs to be successful. Losing a new executive is expensive, with some estimates putting the dollar amount for replacing a C-Suite executive as high as 213 percent of that executive’s salary. Beyond that, there are reputational and morale impacts that can result in lost revenue.

For too many companies, the onboarding process involves only the basic human resources formalities and steps to ensure the new hire has proper IT support—senior leadership needs much more than that. To effectively meet their new responsibilities, they must benefit from a collaborative effort that brings the C-Suite and corporate board together to facilitate an optimal onboarding experience.

Beginning onboarding with orientation

Orientation for any new hire serves as an introduction to the company and the role they will play. For senior leadership, developing a comprehensive understanding of the organization’s strategic focus is a key component of orientation. They should be brought up-to-speed on the mission, vision and values that drive the organization, as well as the competitive landscape and the three- to five-year plan that the organization has mapped out.

Orientation should also help the new leader to develop an understanding of company culture. It is critical that a new leader understand and respect the unwritten rules that comprise corporate culture. When culture is misunderstood or disregarded, the results can be disastrous, especially when it comes to the behavior of senior leadership.

Understanding the preferred method of communication is a simple example of corporate culture. For instance, is the workplace one that primarily communicates through email or text messages? Knowing what is preferred and flowing with that preference can greatly assist in a new leader’s assimilation. Culture defines the non-negotiables in a workplace, which leaders need to know. Violating cultural norms will waylay a new leader as they attempt to settle into their new role.

Starting onboarding as early as possible

One mistake that many companies make is beginning the onboarding process too late. Ideally, the process begins even before the new leader is hired. The interview process can start to expose the prospective hire to expectations, culture and the various workplace dynamics that they will encounter.

It is not unusual for a new leader to begin handling hot potatoes on the first day in the office, though they will be much better equipped to manage issues if they have already had weeks—if not several months—to get their bearings. Taking steps to provide them with relevant information and even invite them to team gatherings, even during the interview process, can make for a much more successful entry into their new role.

Two practical tools for effective onboarding

There are two practical tools that an organization can give to new leaders to assist with the orientation process. The first is a 120- to 180-day custom-tailored orientation plan. This should be developed with input from the entire executive team and include as much information as possible on strategic focus, culture and administrative functions. In addition, this document can lay the groundwork for executive development that the board encourages based on the strengths and weaknesses that are identified during the hiring process.

The second tool, which can be invaluable for a new hire, is having a peer mentor. By providing a readily available and committed guide who already understands culture and dynamics, organizations can help new leaders to more quickly and effectively navigate their new surroundings. A mentor can assist the new leader in moving beyond the “what” of the position to understanding the “how” of the position. He or she can explain how the chain of command works, how communication takes place, how decisions are made, how a crisis is managed and more.

Overall, a successful orientation will prepare the leader to hit the ground running on day one in their new office. Ideally, they will already understand the organization’s strategic focus, key customers, strengths and weaknesses, important discussions that are in motion, and hot topics that require immediate attention. They will know where the organization is going, how it plans to get there, and the role that they are expected to play in its success.

Moving from orientation to assimilation

As orientation allows a new leader to move into a role, assimilation allows that leader to experience the role. This is the phase of onboarding where new leaders can begin to develop a deeper understanding of the business. It involves sitting in key meetings, encountering the culture first-hand, and receiving feedback and input.

The assimilation phase can also be where the leader begins settling into his or her team. It is critical for new leaders to connect with those below them, rather than limiting their interaction to their direct reports. Making personal appearances and talking about expectations is important for new leaders. Human resource managers can assist in this process by setting up new manager assimilation events that involve relevant teams.

Avoiding costly mistakes

The failure to provide a deep understanding of culture is the biggest mistake that organizations make when onboarding new leadership. Leaders must be familiarized with the culture while being assimilated into their new role. Ignoring culture sets new leaders up to fail.

Beyond failing to impart culture, effective orientation must also avoid information overload. New executives need to digest a lot of information, but they do not need to digest it all at once. This is why 120- to 180-day plans are helpful. They map out expectations for engaging with new information and new people, clearly communicating what should be the top priorities.

A final mistake to be avoided is failing to check in regularly during the onboarding. Transitioning to a new company is a process. Most experts agree that it takes nearly 12 months for a new executive to fully assimilate into a company. The CEO and board should be proactive about connecting with new senior hires regularly during their onboarding to ensure a successful transition for the new leader and for the company.


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