Executive Onboarding: Positioning New Leaders for Success

Woman Leading a Team Meeting


Have you ever wondered how a new executive builds his or her reputation? We recently inquired of a friend how the new president of her organization was performing. She responded with “Not well!” and further shared three observations: 1) He did not appear to be concentrating on critical matters; 2) He was questioning the executive team’s activities versus empowering them; and 3) He handed out a book entitled “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” Her last observation made us curious, and we asked her if she had read the book, which outlines a well-respected and effective team-building model. She admitted she had not, and shared that unfortunately the title of the book left the team feeling that the new president viewed them as “dysfunctional.” The growing perceptions of this president within the organization deepened our belief that everything counts as a new leader onboards in his or her executive role.

Losses Associated with New Leader Turnover

Executive Onboarding: Positioning New Leaders for SuccessResearch indicates that 40% of new leaders fail in the first 18 months on the job. The percentage is significantly higher (64%) for leaders entering a company without prior industry experience. Add to that the financial loss associated with turnover, decreased employee productivity and the reduced credibility of a leadership team in the eyes of others and you have a recipe for disaster!

It’s estimated that the financial cost of exiting a new executive within 18 months of hire is roughly three times the leader’s first year salary (this cost is much higher when lost productivity is added). Each new executive hire brings new strategic intentions, and reorganizes and redirects the activities of team members. When an executive position turns over in a short period, team productivity is greatly impacted and the credibility of the leadership team can be tarnished. Employees who witness regular turnover of senior leadership frequently adopt a “wait and see” position when a new leader is hired and resist changing direction until they are sure the new executive will “stick” in the role.

Even if the new leader stays, he or she may never reach his or her full potential within the organization if onboarded poorly. While a number of factors may contribute to this (e.g., lack of role clarity, failure of the organization to deal with resistance to new leadership, lack of executive management support for change, etc.), it is largely due to the inability of the executive to manage the perceptions of others within the company during the first three to six months in the position. Unfortunately, human beings are biased and, once they have formed an initial impression, often spend the rest of their time looking for data to support their point of view.

Why New Leaders Fail

In “The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan,” George Bradt identifies seven landmines associated with executive onboarding:

  1. Organization: Lack of a winning strategy or ability to implement a strategy
  2. Role: Stakeholder expectations, stated objectives and resources are not well aligned
  3. Personal: Role and culture do not play to the individual’s strengths; Gaps exist related to organizational and cultural fit as well as motivation
  4. Relationship: Not building key relationships up, across and down within the organization
  5. Learning: Failure to build an understanding of the organization’s customers, collaborators, capabilities, competitors and conditions
  6. Delivery: Failure to build a high-performance team or to deliver results fast enough
  7. Adjustment: Inability to see or react to situational changes.

In our work with transitioning leaders, we’ve identified four primary “must-haves” in order to ensure executive onboarding successes.

  • There must be agreement among stakeholders regarding the leader’s role and how success in the role will be determined
  • The new leader must come to understand and assimilate into the culture of the organization in order to gain support, especially support for change
  • In order to be successful new leaders must have a plan
  • New executives must be able to request and act on ongoing feedback and to manage their leadership behavior (including behavior that sometimes only surfaces under pressure manage perceptions of others. This requires the ability to request and act on ongoing feedback and to manage their leadership behavior, including behavior that sometimes only surfaces under pressure

How Can an Onboarding Coach Make a Difference?

A onboarding coach utilizing best practices in executive coaching can assist new leaders in positioning themselves for success in multiple ways. Contributions of the greatest value often include:

  • Creation of a 30-60-90 day plan
  • Development of a stakeholder map for meeting with and building effective working relationships with key internal and external stakeholders
  • Facilitated collection and assimilation of critical business and organizational culture data
  • Design a leadership agenda consistent with the mission, vision, strategy and capabilities of the organization
  • Guided self-assessment of leadership style and potential derailers – and development of a feedback loop to enable self-correction

Calculating the ROI of Using an Onboarding Coach

Given the cost of leadership turnover in the first 18 months, many organizations are realizing the value of a formal onboarding process, and hiring an external onboarding process coach.

Consider this example: You hire a new leader at a starting salary of $175,000 whom you let go after 18 months. The monetary cost of executive turnover is calculated at three times the first year’s salary. In this case, the cost of this turnover would be $525,000. By comparison, investing in an executive onboarding coach at an average cost of $15,000 is a significant savings. Wouldn’t you consider this a wise investment?