Imagine that you’ve spent years developing your craft as a painter. You can take any paintbrush, put it to any canvas, and create vast worlds of imagination that are unrivaled by any of your contemporaries.
But you decide one day that you’d like to paint something different. So you tell your patron that you’re off. You’ve decided to paint for someone else.
But when you get there, instead of handing you a canvas, the new patron hands you a sheet of paper. And instead of a paintbrush, he gives you pencils. Of course, he expects you to create work of the same quality you’d been producing for your previous patron.
This is what it’s like going to a new company that doesn’t have a good onboarding process. Good executives have powerful tools that let them do great things—but when you’re thrown into a completely new situation with no transition, it’s hard to put those talents to work.
Of course, after a few years, you’ll probably be just as good with a pencil as you are with a brush, because you’re a talented artist. But it’s going to take time, effort, and a lot of frustration. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have a plan for making the transition?
That’s what an executive onboarding framework is for. Effective executive onboarding takes time to plan and put into practice. But it ensures a smooth transition into the team and helps new CxOs be as effective as possible when they start their new role.
It’s easy to onboard executives poorly. It’s much more difficult to do a good job. But it’s absolutely worth your time.
Here’s what you need to know.
How NOT to Bring on New Leadership
In HBR’s “Onboarding Isn’t Enough,” Byford, Watkins, and Triantogiannis relate the story of an executive who changes companies and receives what many leaders believe to be sufficient onboarding.
HR and IT got him set up their systems, he was introduced to the team, and his responsibilities were outlined by his boss. Then he was turned loose.As you might have guessed, he didn’t last long at the company. And unfortunately, this level of onboarding is common. New CxOs are thrown into the deep end without a functional understanding of company culture, leadership structures, or even the responsibilities of their own roles.
Leaders might use sub-optimal executive onboarding practices for many reasons. They might think that capable CxOs should be able to adapt quickly and get to work. Or that new executives should be given the chance to reform their departments to better fit their working styles. It’s entirely possible that they don’t think about it at all.
But without proper guidance and support, new leadership will suffer. This is especially true if there’s a disconnect with company or team culture, a factor that’s easily overlooked. Whether you’re onboarding a new CEO or a mid-level manager, cultural fit is crucial.
And that’s why successful executive onboarding starts long before your new CxO comes to work.
Executive Onboarding Starts with the Interview
There are compelling arguments that cultural fit is one of the most important qualities a job candidate can have. HBR’s Katie Bouton puts it best:
Cultural fit is the likelihood that someone will reflect and/or be able to adapt to the core beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that make up your organization.
And a 2005 analysis revealed that employees who fit well with their organization, coworkers, and supervisor had greater job satisfaction, were more likely to remain with their organization, and showed superior job performance.
Successful onboarding is a lot easier if your new CxO already fits well with your organization. Assessing cultural fit during your recruiting process should be a top priority. Consider tailoring your interview questions to address cultural fit. Focus on recruiting executives that will work well within your company’s culture.
Of course, this isn’t always possible. But it will give you a big advantage when it comes to executive onboarding.
Create a 90-Day Executive Onboarding Plan
After you’ve decided to hire an executive, it’s a good idea to create a 90-day executive onboarding plan. This will outline the events, meetings, and priorities that your new CxO should focus on over the first three months on the job.
This document should contain everything from planned lunches with direct reports to high-level strategic considerations.
You can download our executive onboarding template below, or you can design your own. Whatever you decide to do, work with your new exec to ensure that it’s both reasonable and useful.
Continue Onboarding Before Day One
Between the interview and day one on the job is another important time for executive onboarding.
TinyPulse points out that absolute honesty is crucial with new executives. They need to know what’s working in your company, what’s not, who they’ll be working with and what they’re like, and any problems they’re likely to face right away.
A new CxO will perform significantly better if they know what they’re getting into. Low team morale, staffing difficulties, communication problems, and departmental dysfunction are much easier to deal with if an executive is aware of them from the outset.
You might want to make your company look good to a new executive—but you’re probably bringing them on to make changes, so it’s best to inform them before they start.
Of course, you should also let your new CxO know about your company’s strengths. A strong company culture, especially helpful employees, effective resources, and anything else that your exec can take advantage of are hugely helpful.
One of the best ways to get this kind of information to your new CxO is to pair them up with an executive mentor.
Even CEOs need mentors. In a confidential, supportive mentor relationship, new execs can ask difficult questions and get honest answers. They can get a feel for the company’s strengths and weaknesses without worrying about their relationship with you (or whoever hired them in the first place).
Find someone in a good position to mentor the incoming exec and encourage them to take on a mentoring role. The value to an incoming CxO is incalculable.
You should also arrange meetings with other C-level executives as well as your new CxO’s direct reports. It doesn’t need to be anything formal—just make sure that your new executive knows the people they’re going to be working with. Schedule a lunch or a coffee to facilitate introductions.