On Boarding for Executives

Get On Board! Taking The Right Step Onto The Train

Years ago, I worked with a large company in which the CEO hired a new senior executive right before a large annual meeting, which was to be his first real introduction to the company. Apparently, little thought was given to how this executive would integrate into the company, so this guy showed up, made a fool out of himself by misreading the culture and destroyed his reputation before he even started the job. (Showing some lower-level people the picture of his new mansion didn’t exactly endear himself to the troops…) He didn’t last long.

The Center for Creative Leadership, recruiting firm Heidrick and Struggles and others studying executive turnover say that more than a third of new executives fail at jobs within 18 months; some say it’s closer to half. The direct costs to the company are large (for example, recruiting fees, salary, moving expenses), but the indirect costs are much larger (changing strategy, stalled growth, damaged relationships, the holding pattern that everyone goes into waiting for Round Two, not to mention the turnover at levels below the new executive). Studies show that the range of this expense is from two to 10 times the executive’s annual salary. One recent book says up to 24 times the salary. Pick a number that you think is roughly right, but it’ll absolutely be more than the national debt of Dilbert’s Republic of Elbonia.

There’s a natural tendency for the hiring party and the executive to want to add value as quickly as possible. However, if you don’t slow down the game long enough to have a better shot at success, hurry-up-offense will just accelerate failure.

All firms are different; if they weren’t, you wouldn’t need an onboarding exercise. But there are four common elements to an onboarding process (I actually prefer the words “align and focus”) that can increase the odds for success, whether the new hire is a CEO, VP or front-line manager. (The ROI is obviously much higher for a more senior person.)

  1. Align with the culture. Culture is defined by the actions that are rewarded and appreciated as well as by those that aren’t (such as showing off a picture of your mansion). Company employees tend to internalize the culture and cannot always describe it well, but when someone violates that culture, they certainly know it.
  2. Build key relationships. New executives need to buddy up to the people they must work with (that is, influence, report to, collaborate with and manage), but they have to identify which of those are real influencers and align with them quickly. Don’t get fooled; sometimes the influential people are lower on the org chart than you would think!
  3. Prioritize correctly. New executives must quickly separate the wheat from the chaff and focus on the right priorities. This requires understanding the organization’s vision and strategy and quickly comprehending the board’s, CEO’s or boss’s expectations. This problem is more prevalent at senior levels because strategy is sometimes nebulous, and there’s this limiting thought about new executives: “They were successful before and I’m paying them a lot of money, so they should be able to figure it out!” To make the most headway, the new executive often needs to take the lead in this process (hopefully supported by a coach).
  4. Brush up on skills. Even at senior levels, a change in companies or jobs often requires a brush up on certain skills. It could be planning, board presentations, performance coaching or financial literacy, but contrary to common wisdom, plug-and-play doesn’t work much better with executives than it does with many computer products. There’s always “hidden code”!

If you watched Star Trek, you might remember The Borg, a humanoid species that abducted and assimilated others into the collective in a quest for perfection. (Resistance is futile!) Luckily, enlightened organizations understand that assimilation is on the far end of the spectrum and there are more effective techniques to develop alignment and focus. In order to optimize your return on investment this process must start in the recruiting stage, so don’t delay!

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