Achieving Sustainable Excellence Through Leadership Onboarding

As the economy fluctuates, it’s becoming obvious to everyone in the world of business that competitive advantage is ultimately about the people you employ. Attracting, developing and keeping top talent is highly priority for business leaders. Data shows a strengthening job market, and many companies are hiring. Employees are on the hunt for new opportunities, and there are a growing number of positions available.

Dan McCarthy , Sylvia Lafair and Erika Lamont join HRIQ in a discussion about facilitating smooth executive integration and developing new leaders for key roles in your company.

HRIQ asks: What solutions do you have to extend the reach of onboarding support to a broader base of new leaders, and facilitating smooth executive integration?

Sylvia: I believe the first bottom line is all about relationships. It’s how to welcome new people in. What I have found is that because we all have different ways of seeing, hearing and focusing on things, we need to have that full boat for us. We need to have something visual in the office that we can see to welcome [the newcomer], and maybe something tactile (like fruit, cookies) so all of our senses can begin being present in our new place of work.

Dan: That’s a great point. Just pay attention to the basics. I’ve heard so many onboarding new executive horror stories. One of them told me that for the first three months, he didn’t have an office. He actually had to sit outside the office of the person he was replacing in a conference room, waiting for the incumbent to clear out. What a horrible experience! He’ll never forget that.

Erika: I think the hardest thing that we find is convincing the organizations that this is really important and a priority. Oftentimes the recruiting process is very intense and time consuming, and once that offer is made the hiring manager says, "Phew! It’s done," and the HR person is off to the next thing. There may not be that attention to the process that is needed to make the transition.

Or they may feel that, since they’re hiring this experienced executive and paying a boatload of money, he or she can figure out what to do without a big formal process. That is where we see the mistakes happen, such as in example that Dan gave of not having an office or not being introduced to the right people. Those things can become a huge gap and barrier for the person making the transition. Getting support from the top and getting them engaged in why it’s important to have the process and how to execute it is something that we talk about a lot.

Dan: There’s an assumption that senior executives who are smart, bright, capable and big enough to figure it out on their own, and it almost becomes like a hazing process. When you’re coming in from the outside, the attitude may be, "Let’s see what the new person can do. Let’s see how well they handle it."

Sylvia: Anybody going into a new situation who says they’re not nervous about it is simply not telling the truth. When stress hits the hot button, we tend to go back to old behavior patterns and we tend to react in the "Fight, Flight, or Freeze" response quite unconsciously. If we’re welcomed in and there is a graciousness there, we can take a deep breath and get to our work. It’s our job to help, if [managers] are not listening, to help them get a desk, and something visual that’s nice—even if it’s just a plant on the desk! And for people to come over and welcome them. That’s just basic courtesy, but it sure does make a difference.

Erika: A big misstep for many new leaders: those behaviors that have served them well in the past. Say they’ve been successful in a past culture, and they’ve gotten results that brought them up to where they are today. Most of them continue to behave in this way, not willing to adapt or pay attention to the new culture. Without the context of cultural information, without feedback about how they’re doing in this new situation, they could make some big errors.

Sylvia: It’s those early trips and falls that people remember. We get an impression immediately within the first 10-15 seconds of meeting someone, and if that impression is negative, it takes a long time for it to go away.

Dan: None of us get enough feedback in our daily lives, but new senior leaders especially tend to be isolated from feedback. One thing we can do to make senior onboarding a smoothing process is to set up something so they’re getting lots of feedback in those first three months.

Erika: Make sure the feedback is both formal and informal. Some organizations are great with this—their culture already has a platform for informal feedback—but most organizations are lacking and I think pretty averse to that kind of feedback. Mini surveys, mini 360s at about the 60-day or 90-day mark are something I recommend. But again, as Sylvia said, you don’t want to wait too long because you want to help them understand what the perceptions are so they are not continuing to make the same mistakes. They’ve got time to correct it before those impressions are permanent.

Sylvia: Giving undivided attention to a new person, says, "We’re welcoming you, and we really want to know what you have to say." Hopefully, they will be returning that in the same situation.

Erika: Another area where new leaders seem to get off track is when they get right into the work. They dig into the issues, as they’ve heard in the recruitment process what all of the problems are and what needs to change. They’ll forget to pull back and learn, understand what the relationships are, understand how the business functions, how decisions are made and how conflicts are resolved so that they can be successful in implementing the changes that were discussed. Many successful people want to get down into the weeds very quickly, because that’s what they’ve done in the past. This is really a learning and doing time period—they need to be able to straddle both of those worlds.

Dan: I’m not sure what the right time frame would be, but how long do you think a new executive should wait before they make any major decision? I’ve always heard, "In the first 90 days, don’t do anything!" Just get out, talk to people, learn, and ask questions. Resist the urge to go in there and get the quick wins.

Sylvia: In this day and age, 90 days may be a bit long. But I do believe that during the first two weeks, especially, is the time to keep asking, looking and evaluating where the real sources of power are in the organization.

Dan: If you come into the company as a new manager, people will be lined up at your door within the first week with a stack of problems, waiting for you to solve them because there’s been a sort of vacuum. You have to be so cautious of that. They’ll have a list and an agenda—things that the previous leader didn’t want to do, decisions they didn’t want to make, and you have to be very careful of that. People are going to be sizing you up and they’re going to be anxious for those decisions and those wins.

Erika: The alignment with your manager is really important during those times in order to be really clear about what is within and what is outside of the boundaries.

One of the first questions I would ask is how long someone is considered ‘new’ in the organization. Does the new business expect you to hit the ground running and start to make those decisions early on? Or do they really need and want you to sit back and adjust to the culture? I’ve worked with a company where new leaders are basically new for two years. New leaders are not permitted to make any major decisions or contributions within the first two years that they’re on board. This particular company is extremely successful and focused on promoting from within and growing their talent, so they hire very few people from the outside. This is very much an exception—but I think it speaks to the point that you have to understand the culture that you’re in.

About the Panel

Sylvia Lafair is a workplace relationship expert with over 20 years of experience. She is President of Creative Energy Options, an avid blogger and author of Don’t Bring it To Work.

Erika Lamont of Connect the Dots Leadership Onboarding blog is a coach, consultant and author of Perfect Phrases for New Employee Onboarding.

Dan McCarthy is the Director of Executive Education at Whittemore School at the University of New Hampshire, and author of the blog Great Leadership by Dan.

Interview conducted by Alexandra Guadagno, Editor for HRIQ.