Integrating a New Leader

Integrating a New Leader You’ve got a bright new leader who’s just joined your organization, and you prepared a great onboarding process to get her acclimated and launched.  Or did you?  What was covered in your onboarding process?

According to an article in the May-June issue of the Harvard Business Review on professional transitions, there is poor understanding of the concept of ‘onboarding’.  “In many companies it refers mainly to completing the required documents, allocating space and resources, and providing mandatory training, usually in technical areas such as compliance. “  Indeed, what the authors found found in a survey conducted by the consulting firm of  Egon Zehnder of almost 200 companies was that 85 – 90% of the companies that said they did onboarding of new leaders felt they did a good job of orienting the new recruits in administrative arrangements, legal and procedural requirements, and orientation to the business.  Those things are critical and should be included in every onboarding process.

But what takes new leaders the longest to learn, and where are they most likely to run into problems early in their terms in a new organization?  The big speed bumps?  Here are examples from some of our clients:

  • Shane was recruited from one of the top three consulting organizations in the country to help a company solve an urgent and critical problem. But months into the role, his company was clearly unhappy with the direction he was taking.  The problem?  He expected they wanted him to apply the expertise and models he brought from his consulting work; they, believing their company was different from all others, wanted a novel approach and were looking for something ‘out of the box’.  A mismatch of expectations.
  • Irene joined the company as a Senior Vice President, and proceeded to make decisions related to the areas of work she oversees, only to get strong negative signals from her boss. It was clear that his understanding of her authority level was different from hers; maybe even from normal understandings of what a Senior VP might rationally expect.  A misunderstanding about role definition.
  • Mark found in his first six months that, though he was hired to get some traction in the company’s marketing, he kept running into what he saw as stonewalling of his efforts. But what Mark didn’t realize was the depth of the consensus culture in the organization, and how much he needed to socialize his plans before any traction could occur.  A lack of understanding of cultural norms.
  • Linda had formed good working relationships with the colleagues who needed to support her new work, but despite that, she found them backing away from helping her in her plans. What she came to realize, slowly, was that another executive who was feared and influential was on the fence about her work – and no one would move forward to help her without his blessing.  A lack of understanding of political influences in the organization.

Egon-Zehnder’s research showed that only 30 – 50% of organizations that do onboarding helped their new executives with clarifying roles, expectations and authorities; with getting to know stakeholders and the political environment; and with understanding the organization’s culture.  So while many firms orient their new leaders, few help to integrate them into the organization.

Paul Borawski, the retired CEO of the American Society for Quality, organized an integration process for his successor.  In addition to planning administrative and business orientations, he arranged some of the following types of integrative steps:

  • A welcoming reception for the new CEO with key staff. This type of activity acknowledges that new leaders need to be welcomed into the social structure of the organization as well as its business environment.  Other companies have regular organized social events to which new leaders can be invited and introduced.
  • Active engagement with key stakeholders of the organization, such as local politicians, leaders in the industry, and partner organizations. This introduction and engagement helps to build crucial relationships.  “We created a list of essential relationships and why they’re essential,” explained Paul.
  • Meetings with all the key people in the organization, focused on numerous topics, including such things as discussion of values and norms, strategy, and current issues the organization was facing. These meetings took the successor’s understanding of the organization to a much deeper level.
  • Paul discussed with his successor each member of his new team, their team dynamics, and team norms – a key piece of culture. Some organizations conduct assessments of new leaders’ cultural fit compared with that of the organization – are they more prone to risk-taking than the organization fosters?  Do they tend to move fast when the organization is more deliberate?
  • Establishment of a list and time spent with ‘go to’ people in the organization, on everything from competition to employee engagement to the organization’s governance. As Paul said, “I arranged a group of respected peers and actually asked them if they would be willing to serve as a point of contact.”  This advance work commits people in the organization to more actively supporting a new leader.

Many organizations spend a lot on recruiting talented people into their organizations – and then assume they’ve got all it takes to have a big impact.  But to really maximize your recruiting investment, it’s critical to give your new leaders the best head start possible to aid their rapid and positive success in the organization.  So move from ‘sink or swim’, past orientation plans, and into the realm of really integrating your new leaders into their new worlds.


Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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