Ainsley was excited and nervous. She was starting her new role as senior leader of a sales team for a large, prominent medical device supplier. It was her “dream job” with its scope of responsibilities, opportunities for advancement and being a leader in a purpose-led organization. She had completed all her pre-hire requirements and was ready to get started, but hadn’t heard from her new manager, Richard, since she accepted the job. She tried reaching out a few times but got no response; her HR contact assured her that “everything was fine” and she would have time with Richard in her first week to talk about getting her up to speed.
On her first day, Ainsley shows up at the office and is greeted by the front-deck receptionist who leads her into a conference room. Then a series of HR folks come in and out of the room with additional paperwork and some company information. The last person shows her to her office and politely leaves after a brief tour of the department. Richard is not around and who she thinks are some of her team members are looking at her curiously.
Some call it new leader onboarding, or executive transition, others may refer to it as leader “integration” or executive “assimilation”, but what we know from our more than 20 years’ experience, is that the “Sink or Swim” approach to leadership transition is NOT a successful strategy.
The data still report that between 40 and 60% of leaders who are either entering a new organization or are internally promoted will fail. The most shocking thing about this statistic is that it hasn’t changed much in the last ten years! Organizations are not getting better at onboarding new leaders and teams and business results are taking the hit for this lack of attention to an important part of an organization’s talent life cycle.
What we do know is that companies who onboard their leaders with purpose have a 90% likelihood that their teams will meet their 3-year performance goals, and experience 13% less attrition than if the leaders received no onboarding support.
The model we have adopted and leverage begins with Pre-start, the time during which the new leader has accepted the job, but not yet officially started through about the first six months. This timeframe can be longer or shorter depending on the organizational culture – in larger, more mature companies, leaders are “new” longer than in smaller, start-up cultures.
We know from our work that new leaders need:
- Knowledge – about the company, its culture, their roles
- Relationships – strong trust built with the manager, team members, peers, and other stakeholders
- Feedback – actionable data about how they are integrating into the organization
But, so many organizations, like Ainsley’s, don’t have a formal process for onboarding their new leaders creating a huge missed opportunity for the leader, team, and broader organization.
What can organizations do to start to address this gap that causes millions of dollars in turnover, disengagement, and misalignment?
Start with these 5 steps to up your leadership onboarding game:
One: Get Real about Objectives
Consider the big picture when forming your onboarding objectives for your leaders. What are the “pain points” that new leaders typically encounter? Turning those into measurable objectives can help turn-around your onboarding experience. For example, structure in Ainsley’s pre-start phase would have eliminated some of her anxiety and stress. It may have also offered the opportunity to build relationships with her boss, her peers or team members.
Two: Make a Plan
Even if your organization doesn’t yet have a structured process, you can create a plan for your individual new leaders. If you are the HR partner, you can have a conversation with the boss to determine the things that the new leader should focus on in their first 90 days, and with whom they need to build relationships. Help the new leader understand why she was hired and what the organization’s expectations are for her. With everyone on the same page there is less room for ambiguity, and it increases both accountability to and transparency of what is expected.
Three: Prepare the Team
When a leader’s role has been vacant for a while or there is an interim manager, the transition for the team to a new leader can be tough. As soon as it’s appropriate, let the team know who has been selected, what the leader will bring, and allow for questions or concerns to be shared. If someone on the team applied for the role and didn’t get it, then a separate conversation is critical. Facilitating a version of a New Leader Integration exercise is also helpful.
Four: Give Actionable Feedback
Often new leaders are not given feedback and are left to guess how they are fitting in. We created a 360- tool that is launched at about the 45–60-day mark to capture this early feedback and help leaders course correct. Many leaders with whom we worked, have said that this feedback “literally saved them”. The report shares perceptions of key stakeholders to provide a snapshot of that leader’s onboarding. The conversations that happen after the data is shared has helped hundreds of leaders see gaps and make changes to address them before the organization decides that they “are not a good fit”. It’s important to note that onboarding feedback is different than performance or development feedback.
Five: Leverage Professional Coaching
Most new leaders are hesitant to ask for onboarding coaching out of concern they will be viewed as less competent or needy. This mindset is starting to shift, however, and leaders can—and should—advocate for themselves, especially if it has been awhile since they changed roles or if the role is high-risk/high reward for the organization. Other factors to consider are how long the role was open, if any current team members wanted the role, and if significant changes must be implemented. All these conditions can be potential showstoppers for even the most seasoned executives, and cause churn for the leader, her team, and the organization. A coach will bring process and structure to the onboarding experience while supporting both the new leader as well as his boss in managing the transition successfully.
Transitioning into a new role doesn’t have to be painful or costly. Organizations that are intentional about leadership onboarding will reap the benefits many times. Leaders will be able to make the impact they were hired to, teams will thrive and grow, and company goals will be realized faster, potentially exceeding expectations.
Ainsley had to experience the “hard side” of leadership onboarding and won’t have the springboard for success that she could have if her new company had provided more thoughtful planning for her entry. Unfortunately, she is in the sink-or-swim lane now.
Listen to Maureen Metcalf’s conversation with Brenda Hampel & Erika Lamont discussing Leader Onboarding.
Short clip from the interview: