Onboarding Is Even More Critical for New Leaders

Is your new leader completely prepared for his or her new role in your business before he or she walks in the door?

Is the new leader’s team prepared for a new leader?

Time is short.

According to Michael Watkins, the first 90 days of an executive leadership transition will make or break a new-to-role leader’s success. This impacts your organization’s ability to retain credibility in the marketplace as a sustainer of leadership legacies and a builder of new leaders who will grow your business. Author and onboarding specialist George Bradt gives it 100 days.

Either way, your onboarding program needs to begin prior to Day One — even before work begins — to have a lasting, sustainable impact on the new leader’s resilience in the position. Whether you are pre-boarding your new leader for the new role before he or she arrives, onboarding the leader the moment he or she enters the building or re-boarding an existing leader into a new position in your firm, every day — every hour — is crucial to the leader’s success in the new role and the organization’s success with the new leader.

One of the greatest dangers of not fully preparing a new or transitioning leader for Day One is that the leader might develop what Hogan Assessments people would call “reputational scars.” If new leaders are not prepared long before they start making impressions in their new roles, they can be infected with a reputational virus that they will not be able to contain.

First impressions persist

First impressions are made in seconds. Your corporate culture, especially the new leader’s team members, won’t skip one minute in passing judgment on the new-to-role leader. We also know that, while most organizations do something to help onboard new leaders, there is often a critical lapse in the overall impact. The typical approach is not nearly comprehensive enough and moves much too slowly. Slow ramp-up onboarding will leave lasting impressions that the new leader will spend time and effort trying to re-cast.

A focused and formal application and approach is needed to help a new leader fully grasp the nuances, specific challenges, and unique complexity of demands associated with the new role. Effective leadership transitions require some degree of adaptation and accommodation particularly when entering a new organizational structure. But, all adaptation, accommodation, focus, and formality aside, effective, high-impact onboarding activities must happen fast, if not well in advance of the new boss’s arrival:

  • Assessment – Assess organizational context, culture, strategy, structure, and leadership science to create a powerful plan
  • Alignment – Empower your new leaders to create critical alliances that are aligned with organizational strategy and provide a platform for their future success
  • Development – Work directly with your new leaders to grow their skills as well as the skills and competencies of other key leaders where necessary to build a high-performance team

Pre-board your leader 90-100 days ahead of day one

Provide focused executive development to address the following key elements:

  • Identify key stakeholders as partners in the new leader’s development process.
  • Study and assess relevant business strategy and organizational culture success factors.
  • Provide preparatory and ongoing feedback, and create a leadership development plan.
  • Utilize various assessment tools to measure leadership strengths and associated dynamics.
  • Build and sustain a focused team that is strategically aligned to the overarching business strategy.
  • Facilitate discussions with key stakeholders and alliance members to get those relationships off on the right foot.
  • Understand the leader’s role as organizational architect, aligning strategy, structure, systems, culture, and talent.

Drive these outcomes:

  • Produce early wins and establish credibility while building momentum and confidence.
  • Develop the required strategies to lead and accelerate a successful transition that fosters hope.
  • Create the right balance of focus and flexibility while being nimble and adaptive to avoid appearing rigid.
  • Capture ongoing feedback and monitor alignment of the new leader’s development with organizational context.

The importance of the team

While most organizations do something to help onboard new leaders, there is often very little, if any, formal attention paid to preparing the new-to-role leader’s team for success. It’s too often assumed that the new leader will handle that in stride during the first 90 or 100 days on the job. That’s not soon enough to make critical impact when it is most needed. The typical leader-led approach is not nearly comprehensive enough in terms of organizational context and expectations; and moves much too slowly.

The arrival of a new leader is a major change, sometimes a shock, to the system. How well teams are prepared to deal with the change will determine the degree of success the new leader and the team will enjoy going forward. During times of change, especially mergers, acquisitions, multiple leadership changes, or reorganizations, it is essential to prepare intact, newly-configured, or re-configured teams for the transition while at the same time building the team’s adaptive capacity, comfort level, and confidence with the new order of things. Teams make or break new-to-role leaders’ success based on those all-important first impressions. If the team is adequately prepared for new leadership, there will be a more solid foundation to build on than first impressions.

Your team onboarding program needs to begin long before the first day the new team sits down together or the intact team meets its new leader, to have a lasting, sustainable impact on the new-to-role leader’s resilience in the role and the effectiveness of the team he or she leads. Every day — every hour — is crucial to the symbiotic success of the leader and the team. Prepare them.

Strategic team alignment is needed to help a newly-configured or re-configured team fully align with each other and their new or existing leader, and help both to fully grasp the nuances, specific challenges, and unique complexity of demands associated with the new structure, relationships, and purpose. As with onboarding leaders, effective, high-impact onboarding of teams must happen fast.

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Pre-board the team 90-100 days ahead of day one

Partner with your leaders and team members to develop a successful transition, just the same way that you do with your leaders being onboarded. Provide focused strategic team alignment to address the following key elements:

  • Study and assess business strategy and organizational culture success factors.
  • Provide preparatory and ongoing feedback and create a team development plan.
  • Facilitate discussions among team members to get those relationships off on the right foot.
  • Build and sustain a focused team that is strategically aligned to the overarching business strategy.
  • Utilize various assessment instruments to measure participants’ strengths and associated dynamics.
  • Understand the leader’s role as organizational architect; aligning strategy, structure, systems, culture, and talent — and prepare the intact, newly-configured, or re-configured team to support the leader.

Drive these outcomes

  • Produce early wins and establish credibility while building momentum and confidence.
  • Develop the required team strategies to accelerate a successful transition that fosters hope.
  • Create the right balance of focus and flexibility for the team while remaining nimble and adaptive.
  • Facilitate alignment dialogue among team members and between team members and the new leader.

Day one conclusion

Every airline pilot knows a safe, smooth landing begins with a great approach that is thoroughly planned and skillfully executed. A landing strategy that begins the moment the wheels touch the runway has a low probability of success, if the airplane touches down anywhere near the runway at all.

Successful onboarding of leaders and teams requires pre-boarding so that the planning is done before the execution begins on Day One. This is more than new leader orientation or acclimation. It could be thought of as new leader orientation or acclimation on steroids with a long training workout regimen before the new leader or team’s muscles get flexed on the job. Leaders and the teams that support them need to be at full speed on Day One; not three months later.

About the Author

A former Walt Disney Company marketing/entertainment executive and divisional general manager at McGraw-Hill, John is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and BusinessWeek best-selling author of 13 books from Amacom, Career Press, HarperCollins, McGraw-Hill, Saint Martin’s Press, and Wiley.  Altogether, his books have been published in 24 languages.

He celebrated his 10 year anniversary with Partners in Human Resources International in July 2016. With a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems, John is the Senior Vice President for Global Contextual Coaching at Partners International and supervises more than 250 coaches in the Partners International global coaching network. He is graduate of the Coaching Supervision Academy, an ICF certified coach, and serves on the board of the New York Chapter of ICF and is currently serving on the ICF International Board Selection Committee.

John has developed a course called “How to Manage the Coaching Function in Organizations” for CUNY SPS and also teaches the course for Fielding Graduate University.  He teaches Foundations & Theory of Coaching for NYU’s Human Resource Leadership Master’s Degree program. One of his favorite engagements is coaching MBA candidates at the Yale School of Management.