Onboarding: Easing In New Executives


June 12, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

As a teacher, nothing makes me happier than to see something I’ve taught to others get passed on – the Pay It Forward concept in action. Six years ago, I had the privilege of coaching Sue Schaefer. At the time, she was the senior vice-president of a large telecommunications company. When I met Sue, she was a very well-respected leader who was working hard to get even better. What was unique about the engagement is that Sue and her team all had coaches at the same time. Sue’s group then went on to implement our behavioral-change process throughout the organization.

What resulted was amazingly positive: Not only did Sue and her team change for the better, so did those people in other functions around her, creating a culture where asking for input was viewed as the norm. I asked Sue to describe her key learning from our engagement.

She replied, “Asking for input on how you can improve is the truest way of understanding your key stakeholders’ expectations. I’ve been in so many situations where the leader’s expectations are significantly different than those of peers or direct reports. Understanding how these expectations can line up prompts better conversations and ultimately, deeper and more functional partnerships.”

Today, Sue is in the coaching business. She is working to ensure that her client organizations are successful in “onboarding” new executives who join the company from other organizations. She is working to create an environment where both the new executives and their companies learn as much as they can in the first few months of the new job.

Sue and I recently discussed the challenges of getting leaders “off to a great start” when they assume new responsibilities.

What opportunity do you see for refining the traditional executive search model? 

The old model just doesn’t work often enough! Business cannot afford the existing failure rates that result from misaligned expectations. Harvard’s Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, has revealed that a staggering 58% of new executives – those hired from the outside – don’t succeed in their new position within 18 months. The cost per failure is more than a million dollars.

Companies spend an enormous amount of money recruiting people. While we hear about recruiting costs and the costs of failed executives, we often don’t factor in the indirect costs of hiring an executive who becomes toxic to the environment. It can take months – or even years – to rebuild an organization after a particularly negative experience. The higher up the executive, the more costly the “reconstruction” costs. Very high-level negative experiences can definitely damage the company’s reputation and stock value.

What can companies do to help ensure that they don’t have these unfortunate and costly failures? 

The solution lies with both the company and the individual. Individuals: Read whatever you can on this topic and be prepared for the types of problems that come with the turf. Don’t delude yourself that you are different or immune from the types of transition issues that have hurt so many other executives. Realize that you are not only going to have one job, you are going to have two jobs: 1) doing your regular work and 2) fitting in with a new company and culture. Be willing to get help! Realize that it may be very difficult for employees to immediately trust you – and be open in sharing their ideas. Get as much unfiltered feedback as you can.

And what about companies? 

They need to make the onboarding transition a top priority. They must accept the natural challenges that occur with this type of change. They need to look at the numbers and realize that if you don’t pay the price in the beginning of the process, you may pay a much larger price when the executive fails. A company has to realize that the new executive may well need help early in the assignment and it should have the help ready – before it is needed.

And how do you get companies to do this? 

My partners and I believe that extensive due diligence needs to occur at the front end of the search to have a deep understanding of stakeholder expectations and differences. We then recommend an extensive onboarding process for the first few months to help acclimate the leader to the environment.

The onboarding process involves regular feedback from key stakeholders, ongoing follow-up to ensure effective communication, and coaching – to provide an objective, outside perspective. This type of intervention can dramatically increase the odds that the executive can more quickly produce the results that the shareholders want and are paying for.

Most executives who are being recruited have a track record at one or more other companies. That’s what has made them attractive targets in the first place. However, even successful executives can find themselves in a situation where expectations and communications become misaligned.

What are the warning signs? 

1. Lack of clarity on how the goals of the new position line up with the company goals.

2. The new executive has difficulty adjusting his/her style to be sensitive to how work gets done in the organization.

3. Insufficient investment of time around building a team equipped to achieve the goals of the new organization.

4. Misunderstandings around political sensitivities of the new work environment and how to operate given their own political acumen.

Successful executive onboarding works to align expectations and gain agreement prior to the executive coming on board. This way, all involved end up with more than a hire, they achieve a winning match for their organization.

Sue Schaefer can be reached at sue.schaefer@jivarocxo.com. You can find out more about her at this Web site.