On-Boarding Executives

For the past few years, in addition to coaching leaders and teams, I’ve done a bit of on-boarding coaching for when organizations bring on a new executive and want to get that individual producing wins and navigating the playing field successfully as quickly as possible.  Rather than wait the six months to a year of learning curve time it takes when new executives are left to their own devices in a new culture, many organizations are protecting their investment by also engaging an executive coach for the on-boarding process.  This gets the new executive integrated more quickly and therefore productive and effective earlier than if he or she were to figure out the new landscape on their own.
My colleague Steve Gladis (Survival Leadership) shares these points about on-boarding executives, posted here with his permission:

1.      What does on-boarding mean, relative to new executives?

a.      Whenever you bring a new executive (or anyone for that matter) into a company, it’s as if he or she were entering into a tribe. Such tribes (companies and organizations) all have a distinct culture and hierarchy, both official and, more importantly, unofficial. I sometimes describe culture as the organizational unwritten attitudes, behaviors and rules that are strictly enforced.
b.      As a new executive comes onboard and enters into the corporate culture and power structure, the entire organization tries to figure out, very quickly, if this new person will be a threat or an asset.
c.       The time frame for critical decisions (threat vs. asset) by the organization varies but the first 6 months (especially the first 3 months) are the most important. If executives are brought on board in a thoughtful, concerted way, they have a much better chance for success.

2.      What are the stats regarding such on-boarding when it goes bad?

a.      In his book, The First 90 Days, Michael Watkins of the Harvard Business School states the blunt, disturbing truth: “Studies have found that more than 40-50% of senior outside hires fail to achieve desired results. Estimates of the direct and indirect costs to a company of a failed executive-level hire range as high as $2.7 million.”
b.      In my experience as an executive coach, I’ve watched new executives come in like a freight train, turn the place upside down and take down walls before they know which ones are load bearing and which are merely cosmetic. Typically, their “death spiral” begins very early on and can take as little as a year and sometimes two for them to finally be ejected as a threatening organism to the tribe. Peers, subordinates, and even the very bosses who hired them will foment or back such a rejection—directly or indirectly.

3.      Who is at fault for this failure rate?

a.      The company or organization thinks: We invested a lot in this executive. He or she will figure out what has to be done.
b.      Incoming new executives think: I’ve done this before; I’m smart enough to figure it out. What got me here will get me to the next level. Everyone wants to see some immediate results.
c.       WRONG!  A pox on both houses.

4.      So, what can a CEO do to ensure that this misguided thinking and resulting failure don’t take place?

a.      Be aware of the problem and its enormous cost to the organization. Treat it like any other $2.7 risk to the company.
b.      Buy insurance…some form of on-boarding process.
c.       Engage Human Resources. HR should not just in hiring executives, but also make sure there’s an orientation/on-boarding process in place before executives arrive. Oftentimes, it’s up to the individual business sector, executive assistant, or worse yet no one to set up a comprehensive organizational introduction. In fact, many executives are merely introduced at a working meeting or executive conference. That’s the extent of on-boarding before such new executives are asked to dive into often heated and contentious negotiations without any background or cultural lay of the land.
d.     Sit down with the executive before the first day. Talk to them about your expectations, your management style, the history of the situation, the development of the company, and your leadership philosophy. Mostly, tell them to make haste slowly. Give them permission to listen, learn, and not to feel like they MUST do something immediately.
e.      Appoint a mentor: As CEO, one of your primary duties is succession planning. As the tribal chief, you need to ensure that someone in the organization guides the new on-boarding executive. Such mentoring will help them steer the new hire away from the early rocks and shoals that could sink the ship before success can be measured.
f.        Hire an executive coach: While this might appear self-serving, I hope I can objectively explain why this is important. An executive coach has the new executive’s best interest at heart, above all else. Of course, the organization is a concern as well, but ultimately my focus is on making the executive successful, and ultimately the company. In a sense, I act as a bridge between the organization and my client, the new executive.  My duties/functions include the following:
i.      Address early questions: Coaches can find out from the organization what it wants from the new executive. What questions do subordinates, peers and their boss have for them, as they walk in the front door? Interviews, questionnaires and coordination with HR can help this process go smoothly.
ii.      Act as a sounding board. As a third party outsider, an executive coach can serve as a thoughtful sounding board for the new executive to discuss ideas, feelings, and issues off of. By being an objective, experienced outsider, an executive coach offers perspective, feedback, and a place to vent—to ensure the client doesn’t move in a precipitous and unthoughtful way that might ultimately hurt personal credibility.
iii.      Take the temperature of the organization: Using periodic, regular inquiry, coaches can literally take the organization’s cultural temperature to find out whether the new executive is being perceived as a threat or an asset. I often do an early 360 evaluation and follow up with all-day meetings and interviews. Then the client gets this feedback, notes threats and works on them so that they can minimize negative impact early on in the tenure.
iv.      Become a safe harbor. Perhaps one of the least quantifiable but most important roles of an executive coach is to be a safe place for new executives to express their deepest thoughts and emotions. Leadership isn’t an easy place to be, and entering into a new organization’s culture only compounds the issue. Having someone in whom you can confide truthfully with complete confidence in their loyalty, is indeed a great relief…or so my clients have told me.
v.      The ROI is well worth it. The investment in executive coaching is 1-2% cost-to-risk outlay for the company. I just wish I could get that from any of my investments these days!

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