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The key to successful executive onboarding? It takes a village.

| Jan. 11, 2023

The Great Shuffle has more and more workers transitioning into new roles and new companies, but so many are failing at their new jobs. Is their skillset to blame? Imposter Syndrome perhaps? Read this week’s blog post to learn why so many executives are falling short, and what the onboarding process can do about it.

Across borders and industries, the business world is undergoing an unprecedented talent reshuffle. Workers are changing jobs with higher frequency than ever before, including executives at the highest levels. Transitions can be mutually beneficial for both parties; bringing in new leadership is an opportunity for a company to shift direction, spark innovation and drive the organization to achieve greater impact. It is also a chance for individuals to expand their horizons and advance their careers. Whether seeking an internal promotion or looking to move over to a new company entirely, people today are more likely to be planning for a future transition than settling down in one role long-term.

What does all of this reshuffling mean for the companies?

Let’s look at the numbers. It can cost a company anywhere between one-half to twice a person’s salary to hire their replacement. If you take into account the time it takes to hire and train the new candidate and the amount of people in transition at any point in time, the impact is significant. Based on employee turnover rates before the pandemic in the United States, that can amount to a whopping $1 trillion a year. Moreover, every time someone leaves their job, it automatically has a ripple effect on productivity and negatively impacts the productivity of anywhere between 5 to 12 people directly.

Thanks to the ‘Great Reshuffle,’ most companies have onboarding programs in place for their new hires with methods that work to varying degrees of success. It is notable that few companies have any kind of onboarding program for employees transitioning to new roles within the organization. This, we would argue, is a serious oversight and a big part of the reason that almost 50% of people who were promoted within their own organizations were underperforming a year and a half into their promotion. A similar number of failed transitions was reported among senior leadership roles.

So why do so many internal transitions and external hires fail? Ultimately, their lack of success is not an indication of professional failure or incompetence. What it comes down to is ‘network performance’: these professionals might be great at their jobs, but they are bad at networking.

It’s time to embrace the virtual water cooler

The workforce today is extremely hyper-collaborative, with many companies actively encouraging work interdependence among their employees. With the prevalence of remote and hybrid work models, and the considerable ease with which teams can work together even great distances apart, collaboration has become the new norm; nowadays employees are spending 85% or more of their time working in collaboration with others. And so, for any onboarding process to be truly successful, the focus should be on compatibility. That’s not to say that professional expertise is unimportant, but it is not the determining factor as to whether or not an onboarding will be successful.

For new hires to thrive in the workforce today, they must strive to not only become part of the organization but to find ways to complement and collaborate with it. The onboarding process needs to reflect the needs of the organization and its greater need for collaboration as well as the new candidate’s skillset, personality, leadership style, and weaknesses. In order to optimize the match between the organization and the individual and ensure the right fit, the onboarding should focus on helping the individual navigate and enmesh with the culture.

The making of a leader

To understand what needs to change for the onboarding to facilitate an individual’s success, it’s important to consider the common pitfalls that can occur early on in the process. New executives often report a sense of isolation upon entering a new leadership position. A few factors are at play here; the first being the mistaken belief that he or she is supposed to be self-sufficient. They might feel the need to prove themselves and live up to the reputation that helped them get to where they are in their professional careers. They might be overly confident in their own knowledge and capabilities, convinced that they can make executive decisions early on based on their own prior experience. 

However, research shows that taking on too much, too soon only leads to frustration, overwhelm and early burnout. It often results in isolationist behaviours that prove to be counterproductive. In fact, for an executive transition to be efficacious, the opposite is true.

The early days in a new role are precisely when new leaders should be actively relying on and building a network. They are perfectly situated to build connections and cultivate a collaborative culture with their new team, since they will not only have everyone’s attention, but people will be more willing to help. Asking co-workers, employees and even experts from outside of the organization for their input and advice will also help foster mutual respect and responsibility. People will feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas moving forward, will feel more appreciated and heard, and will thus feel more motivated and productive.

The fast and the curious

Helping new executives start off on the right foot requires that the onboarding process be transparent and upfront about the challenges and opportunities that await them. A good place to start is with a healthy reality check; transferable skills aside, both parties need to recognize that the new candidate will essentially be starting from scratch as they learn to navigate a new organizational culture and a largely unfamiliar social environment. They will need to learn about the dynamics in place and how their role interfaces with others. And they’ll need to do it fast.

Research shows that the most successful transitions - of internal and external hires alike - adopted what’s called ‘fast mover’ tactics. Fast movers are executives who acclimate swiftly to their new environment. They quickly ascertain where and how they can add value and where they might fall short, and then intentionally foster connections to fill those identified gaps. They create mutually advantageous and meaningful relationships early on. The key is to be fast but intentional.

While the onboarding team cannot do that work for them, they can set their new leader up for success. An important part of that is making sure that they recognize and seize the opportunity in front of them, and use those first days and weeks strategically. This is no easy feat, which would explain the high failure rate among even the most experienced and skilled professionals. It is therefore incumbent upon both parties to be mindful of the potential pitfalls. New leaders will have a lot to juggle and manoeuvre in a short period of time. Imposter syndrome can lead to self-sabotage and failure. Overconfidence will destroy the relationships they should be cultivating, but too much reserve will lose them respect.

They must somehow find the balance between humility and pretension, self-assuredness, and an honest willingness to learn. They will have to be an expert in their own right but also an effective communicator and collaborator with a broad and supportive network. Now is the time to re-examine why and how organizations plan their onboarding, and to start prioritizing their new hire’s long-term success.

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