Take Onboarding to the Next Level
Updated: Jul 11
Despite consensus regarding the critical importance of adequate onboarding support during executive transitions, estimates suggest that less than 30 percent of companies provide that support well enough to achieve full integration. Not surprisingly, the costs can be significant in terms of reduced morale/engagement, lost productivity, and negative stakeholder impact. In a recent HBR article, Onboarding Isn't Enough, integration is defined as "Doing what it takes to make the new person a fully functioning member of the team as quickly as possible." Fortunately, evidence suggests that targeted strategies to facilitate integration are not necessarily difficult or expensive to implement--especially when compared to the cost of failure.
In this post, we'll address the 4 major phases of executive transition, offer tips for addressing each, and provide a heuristic model of the full process. The 4 phases of transition are: 1) Executive Preparation, 2) Institutional Preparation, 3) Institutional Support, and 4) Executive Contribution.
Phase 1 (P1): Executive Preparation. Executive Preparation is about creating a solid personal foundation for transition. Beyond the feelings of excitement and accomplishment that
often accompany promotions, new executives also face the potential for myriad interpersonal and intrapersonal challenges associated with the transition. For example, in cases where promotions occur from within, relationships with previous peers and superiors often change in ways that can be difficult to navigate. Perspectives and mindset must also evolve without the benefit, necessarily, of a new context. Alternatively, when a new executive is hired from the outside, acclimation can be particularly steep and demanding as many, if not all, key relationships have to be established anew, and quickly. Acclimating to a new culture is especially challenging, and recognized as the most common reason for transitional failure. In order to prepare for the many unique demands of transition, executives must take time to reflect on their lives (both personally and professionally) and what the new position means for them. In the 2013 HBR article It's All About Day 1, the authors offer 5 specific recommendations for new leaders:
Reflect on what the new role means in terms of how you see yourself related to values and interests.
Manage your own expectations as to how you will allocate limited time and energy.
Consider what the change means for your family and address this with them as early as possible.
Expect conflict, both professional and personal and set aside time to address.
Engage in periodic assessment and offer (or negotiate) adjustments if necessary.
Successful navigation of P1 results in a greater sense of purpose and positive expectation--both of which predict outcome. Furthermore, seeking to understand and help address loved one's needs as part of the transition will make the process smoother for all. Nonetheless, even the best laid plans often require adjustment over time. Here, flexibility is essential. Address issues as soon as they arise to prevent unnecessary "snowballing". Finally, ongoing interaction with members of the new company's appointment team is also critical for coordinating and aligning with institutional preparation efforts.
Phase 2 (P2): Institutional Preparation. Just as new executives need to prepare themselves for transition, so to do the companies that hire them. The moment a new hire accepts an offer, so should begin the company's internal preparations for transition. While some transitions might afford (and require) ample time and resources to be addressed (e.g., a planned succession from within), others may happen quickly (e.g., an abrupt departure). In any case, appointment teams should address 4 fundamental questions:
What message is the appointment meant to convey?
Why is this person the right one for the job?
Which members of the organization need to be informed
What should they be told and when
Corporate culture is a powerful force, so messaging regarding new hires is critical for establishing positive expectations. At a minimum, messaging should address why the hire was necessary and, especially, why the person hired was the right person for the job. In some cases, the former may be obvious (e.g., simply filling a vacated position), while in others it may be less so (e.g., transitioning from a VP of Finance to a CFO). In nearly all cases, however, a rationale must be provided as to why a particular person was selected in terms of the candidate's relevant qualifications and experience. It is especially helpful when that rationale can be tied to a larger sense of corporate purpose (e.g., strategic goals).
Once messaging is prepared, the next step that the team must address is who to tell and when. Of course, this varies widely depending on the situation and type of company (private vs. public). One group that often requires special consideration is the internal candidates that were passed over for promotion. This can be especially sensitive when there are implications for career growth and/or when such positions are essential to the new executive's team. Candid conversations are a must here. Considerations must also be given to direct and skip-level reports, along with peers and other colleagues--all of whom will be curious about what the change will mean for them. Finally, external stakeholders (e.g., business partners, shareholders, community organizations, etc.) will also need time to process the implications.
If done well, the new executive's team and all stakeholders should not be surprised or overly reactive to the transition once it begins. While there will still be plenty to address when Day 1 arrives, a solid foundation of personal and institutional preparation is a great start.
Phase 3 (P3): Institutional Support. If Institutional Preparation has been addressed adequately, the first objective of Institutional Support is simply to reinforce the rationale for, and
support of, the new executive. To inspire confidence across the ranks, it is particularly important that the support remain genuine and consistent. The second objective of P3 is to work collaboratively with the new executive to help accelerate the learning and acculturation process, which we'll talk more specifically about in Phase 4.
If, however, P3 arrives with less than the desired or intended preparation (as it often does), it will be necessary to triage priorities quickly to address concerns as effectively as possible. Together, the company and new leader should begin this process by acknowledging the challenges of an accelerated leadership change, and (ideally) explain the reasons for it. A little humility goes a long way, especially when coupled with a willingness to accommodate team member needs and concerns. While it may not be as timely or comprehensive as desired, targeted messaging and meetings with select stakeholders remain important and should be prioritized.
With adequate institutional support in place, the new executive can focus fully on the important tasks for which they were hired.
Phase 4 (P4): Executive Contribution. Executive Contribution is where the rubber finally meets the road, and where the efforts to reflect, prepare, and establish supportive structure pay
dividends. Responsibility for success shifts more to the new executive, and it's time to shine. Speaking of time, there's none to waste. The generally expected timeframe for new executives to establish themselves in terms of initial contribution is about three months. That's right, only 90-100 days!
In the article mentioned at the top of this post, the authors posit 5 major tasks that new executives must accomplish during Phase 4. They are:
Assuming operational leadership
Taking charge of the team
Aligning with stakeholders (a terrific "big-picture" narrative example of this is L.L. Bean: The Making of An American Icon)
Engaging with the culture
Defining strategic intent
Accelerate learning. The learning curves in the early days will be steep and require a discriminating approach that allows new executives to focus limited attentional capacity on the appropriate priorities unique to the new position (e.g., markets, products, technologies, systems, structure, culture and politics).
Match strategies to situations. Accurate assessment and diagnosis of challenges to be addressed is a critical first step to effective intervention. Of course, it's even more difficult when new to the job. It is critical that new executives take enough time to get an accurate picture, but not to the point of being indecisive.
Secure early wins. The goal here is to develop momentum that establishes personal credibility by demonstrating both judgement and an ability to deliver results. While it can be tempting to "swing for the fences" early on, it is usually better to focus on achieving solid, stable gains.
Negotiate success (with your boss). Few relationships are more critical for success than the one with a boss. While this relationship has hopefully been developing over the preceding 3 phases, P4 is where it needs to shift into high gear. One way to accelerate the process is to involve superiors in the development and implementation of an initial 90-day plan.
Achieve alignment. As learning (item 1) about the company and the new position and responsibilities reaches an early critical mass, new executives must also assess the fit between strategic directions/goals, organizational structure, and existing strategies. Issues with any will need to be addressed.
Build your team. It takes a village! Few leaders operate in isolation effectively. In a nutshell, building an effective team requires assessment, reshaping, and alignment of the team with strategic vision and goals. This, of course, is easier said than done, and many new executives (to their own peril) tend to cut corners here.
Create coalitions. Creating coalitions is about aligning with stakeholders, of which there are usually many, and with equally varied interests. In his reflections on the importance of serving stakeholders, the former Chairman and CEO of L.L. Bean, Leon Gorman, believed that the company's responsibility was to "Add value to everyone who had a vested interest in the company," and described stakeholders as, "Customers, employees, stockholders, vendors, communities, and the natural environment." Identifying and connecting with key stakeholders is essential to developing a consensus of broad support.
Keep your balance. Working within personal capacity, and ensuring adequate "recharge" options in the form of supportive personal and professional relationships and activities is of vital importance. The first 90 days are incredibly demanding, and few can, or should, treat them as a sprint.
Accelerate everyone. It is important to remember that everyone on the team is in transition along with the new executive. None can reach the desired efficiency or effectiveness until all have achieved the necessary acclimation. To that end, new executives must stay connected to the team in a fashion that both feel is adequate to assess progress and adjust the strategies necessary to achieve success.
The Integration Matrix
To better illustrate how each of the above phases relate to the overall goal of successful integration, we created The Integration Matrix. As you can see, the matrix incorporates each of the 4 phases. The lower (1 & 2) and upper (3 & 4)
phases correspond to before and after the new executive's first day on the job. While each of the phases represent distinct areas of focus, some aspects of phases 1 and 2, along with 3 and 4, depend on interaction between the new executive and company to be successfully addressed. Those interactions are depicted with bidirectional arrows. In addition, the progression from phase 1 to 4 (Executive Preparation to Contribution) and from phase 2 to 3 (Institutional Preparation to Support) vary not only as a function of Day 1, but also in terms of several other factors such as whether the new executive is being promoted from within, or hired from outside the company, what position is being transitioned (e.g., CEO vs. VP), how fast the transition will occur, company culture, etc. For all transitions, however, successful integration is achieved as a result of two important meta-progressions represented by the long arrows above, and to the right of the matrix: 1) the new executive's ability to contribute meaningful value to the company vis-a-vis increasing engagement and contribution and, 2) the success with which the executive is able to adapt to the culture of both the company and the position (acculturation).
Traditional onboarding efforts are often inadequate to promote the desired level of new executive integration. A more comprehensive approach to assessing and supporting executive transition includes 4 distinct phases that better prepare both new executives and companies for successful integration. These phases are represented in The Integration Matrix, which can be used as a tool to help executives and companies address the unique nature of, and priorities for, any transition.