This is How to Really Set Your New Execs Up for Success

Are new executive hires being set up for success?

Not always, apparently.

A majority of North American executives reported that they received no formal onboarding for their new roles, according to a survey released earlier this year by BlueSteps, the career-management service of the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants.

The survey also found executives in the U.S. are 35% less likely to receive formal onboarding compared to the global average. When grading onboarding experiences on a scale of 1 to 100, executives in the U.S. rate theirs as mediocre, with an average score of 59.

While improving employee onboarding has been a popular topic in recent years, this research reminds us that there’s a performance-preparation gap in priority setting, work-culture acclimatization and relationship building that could have a serious effect on a company’s bottom line, says Karen Greenbaum, president and CEO of AESC.

“Organizations put so much effort into finding, assessing and convincing the top candidate to join their firm,” she says. “It’s quite remarkable how little time many spend on ensuring the successful candidate is able to integrate into the organization and hit the ground running. A successful onboarding program can ensure that the executive not only joins but has a long-term, successful high-impact career.”

The problem, of course, is not new, even though some companies tackle it better than others. A 2018 survey of 400 CEOs conducted by the international leadership-advisory firm Egon Zehnder found that only 38% of external executive hires and 28% of internal executive hires felt they were fully prepared for their new roles.

“These roles are unfolding in a world that has become more complex,” says Lena Triantogiannis, partner in Egon Zehnder’s Athens office and co-leader of the firm’s global integration practice. “Newly appointed leaders are finding themselves having to step into organizations and roles that are quite demanding and challenging.”

That’s why adequately integrating new-leader hires into an organization is critical for making good decisions faster, adds Mark Byford, partner in Egon Zehnder’s London office and co-leader of the firm’s global integration practice.

“I think this is about value missed or value seized,” he says. “Frankly, giving someone a telephone directory and an office, a chair and a computer doesn’t really do that.”

“We’ve created the wrong expectation about what onboarding is,” adds Brent Heslop, partner and head of global M&A business transformation for Mercer. “Most people’s experience as an employee is, ‘I sit in a room and somebody drones on and on for 45 minutes about benefits, and then drones on and on for two hours about compliance and then drones on [for] 30 minutes about vague descriptions of our values.’ We just don’t see a lot of value in it. Nobody wants to distract a senior executive from just getting on with their work.”

According to the surveys, newly hired executives clearly want support. While each organization is different, an effective executive-onboarding program includes several vital elements: clear performance expectations that are routed in strategic priorities, helpful operational overviews, realistic descriptions of the company’s culture and how decisions are made, stakeholder “maps,” coaching and more.

“Let’s fine-tune what they need to learn and then get them up that curve as fast as we can,” Heslop urges. “When we have that perspective, there’s less reluctance [to develop an executive-onboarding program].”

Implementing the onboarding process involves a lot of conversations with the CEO or hiring manager, HR and outside coaches, if necessary, he says. Good execs build their networks and relationships throughout the onboarding process, so simply handing over an onboarding manual to the new hire is unlikely to be valued or effective.

Onboarding 2.0

What would executives like more of in their onboarding programs? The AESC research revealed respondents are seeking information on:

  • the company’s goals and vision (20%);
  • internal processes, to learn how the organization functions (14%);
  • team culture (10%);
  • IT training (9%); and
  • an introductory meeting with other teams and offices (8%).

Greenbaum recommends a structured onboarding process that is customized for each role in the company.

“This includes an in-depth 90-day plan focused on culture immersion, engaging with the leadership team and employees at large, and an in-depth review of strategic and key tactical plans,” she says. “During the first 12 months, periodic check-ins are valuable, and a 360 process that provides meaningful feedback should be built in.” That should include other leaders or board members identifying red (or yellow) flags regarding the executive’s work and a plan for corrective action, she adds.

This approach can be managed internally or with the help of outside executive coaches, but the underlying message is about the depth of the information being shared with the new hire.

“You’ve got to be willing to tell the truth about how things really work around here,” says Heslop. “Not how they show up on paper but how they really work because [not knowing that is] what keeps executives from getting better faster. It’s understanding the informal, unspoken and unwritten rules, as opposed to the things that they got told during their recruiting process. They may have uncovered some of those [already], but those are the ones that are going to really make them either more effective faster or trip them up.”

Who can tell these truths? Often, it’s a peer mentor whose selection rises organically, as opposed to through the “onboarding-buddy” programs usually assigned to lower-level employees. “It is much more clandestine and informal,” says Marie Holmstrom, senior director of the talent and rewards line of business for Willis Towers Watson. “It’s more like advice from a peer who says, ‘You should get to know John because he joined the organization six months ago and will have a really good perspective on this.’ ”

Ignoring “the way things work around here” can be a common mistake of new executives who aren’t supported by a good onboarding program, Heslop says. “They do so at their peril because, if you think you can come in from outside and simply know better and not accept the status quo, you’re just making your job harder for yourself.”

It’s important for companies to start the onboarding plan-development process before the hired exec even walks in the door, says Holmstrom, as this is when you can most properly document the new leader’s talents, personality and style observed during the interviewing process. This creates a “memory” of why the person was hired in the first place. Typical questions include:

  • What are the attributes of this candidate that are so needed for the role and the organization today?
  • Where might this executive have challenges coming into the organization because of his or her past experiences, track record, personality or leadership style?
  • What support can the organization provide to maximize success and minimize failure, based on these attributes?

“Getting the CEO or the hiring manager to really articulate that from the beginning helps to avoid things that could come back 30, 60 [or] 90 days into the new [hire’s tenure],” says Holmstrom. “We forget. We have all this promise around a new hire but we know that everybody has to make a transition and acclimate. Organizations tend to have fairly strong cultures and expected ways of working together. Some candidates may have more transition steps that are needed to acculturate to that new work environment.

“If we review [these factors] with the new hire in advance of their coming in the door, then we set them up for success,” she adds.

Holmstrom recommends determining expectations for the new hire’s 30-, 60- and 90-day marks involving topics like meeting the top-five strategic priorities, managing the mandate for change, developing relationships with key stakeholders and identifying strategic partners. Reviewing the plan periodically helps focus attention on the true priorities, rather than continually bombarding the new hire with information and regular fire drills that distract from the goals.

An impartial third party, such as an executive coach, can facilitate reflection back on the original mandate of the role and gives the executive an objective sounding board.

“I found it’s really helpful to have that onboarding coach be able to say to the executive, ‘What you’re going through is normal—these questions you’re asking, this concern that you’re not making an impact fast enough or these competing priorities that are coming at you,’ ” Holmstrom says.

The coach can also help the CEO reposition the challenges for the new leader and set new messaging, if course correction or pivoting is necessary.

As part of the 90-day check-in, Holmstrom recommends the third-party coach—or CEO or HR leader, depending on the company—conducts brief interviews with each of the stakeholders, direct reports, the hiring manager and peers about the key areas the executive was prompted to focus on when coming into the role. Questions can include how well the executive is building relationships, adapting to the culture and bringing in new ideas, as well as opportunities for increased success. A written summary of these answers provides everyone with a real understanding of the individual’s performance, transition and success.

“It’s a really good checkpoint to see how the individual is doing,” Holmstrom says.

Opportunities and Challenges

Strategic executive onboarding can also be critical during mergers and acquisitions; yet, it’s a step that many companies ignore, to their later regret, says Mercer’s Heslop.

He praised one company for making a concerted effort to engage senior leaders and onboard the tier beneath them to have the focus on onboarding cascade through the entire organization. “It’s an exceptionally intense investment in making sure that they’re doing a good job of onboarding and actually engaging leaders,” he says.

With M&A, in particular, articulating how the acquired company’s executives are going to work with the parent company’s leaders, and vice versa, is a vital component of the process.

Replacement execs are often hired due to an incumbent’s poor performance in meeting strategic goals, says Egon Zehnder’s Byford. Although companies may feel pressured to get someone quickly, the situation with the previous exec should serve as a reminder to provide the new hire with good grounding.

All executive onboarding should include helping them understand the company’s stakeholders and the organization’s culture, says Egon Zehnder’s Triantogiannis, adding that other elements depend on the individual position. “In roles where somebody has a higher degree of international visibility, deciding on where [they’re] going to show up, when and in what sequence, is a detail that becomes very important.”

Byford cited the case of a newly hired global pharmaceutical executive who had a color-coded chart showing which sites he was going to visit over the course of about six months. One recently acquired large operation was on the calendar for a visit three months out. That schedule was sending a signal—and it wasn’t a good one.

“It was not hard for him to reorient [his schedule and] put it near the front. Then, the signaling was quite the opposite,” says Byford.

These are good arguments for paying attention to both the big picture and the finer details in the onboarding process, says Holmstrom.

A final factor bolstered by the onboarding process is probably the most critical and, yet, often-forgotten element of a successful transition: setting very clear expectations for the new hire, a subtle element that can be easy to gloss over.

“The new executive is probably going to want to make an impact very, very quickly,” Holmstrom notes. “This is a major transition for the executive, especially if it involves a relocation or a change in industry or sector. These things add to the overall transition challenge. There needs to be patience on both sides with that process.”


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Maura C. Ciccarelli
Maura Ciccarelli is freelance writer based in Southeastern Pennsylvania. She can be reached at [email protected]