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.
Hit the Ground Running
Byford, Watkins, and Triantogiannis recommend that companies get their new executives involved in both operation and strategy immediately.
C-level executives need to be immersed in business-critical areas of operation—they should be sitting in on important meetings to see how the company functions, taking part in discussions about parts of the company they don’t oversee, and be introduced to the parts of the business that are even peripherally connected to their own.
They should also have a strong introduction to the company’s strategic plans. Where is your company going? How will it get there? What changes will need to be made? How will they be affected, and what’s expected of them? These are all questions that need to be answered.
Of course, there’s such a thing as too much early on in an executive’s tenure, so you’ll need to be careful with this. That’s why it’s good to have a 90-day executive onboarding plan. You hired a capable person to do this job, so you can throw a lot of information at them. But don’t overdo it.
After this level of preparation, your new CxO is ready to start driving strategy him- or herself. It’s important to hand over the reins quickly. That’s why you hired a new executive in the first place. With the right preparation, they’ll be fully ready to start making positive change in the company.
Provide Opportunities to Connect with the Workforce at Large
Beverly Morgan sums up this point nicely: “New CxOs should be visible CxOs.”
As a leader in the company, your new executive needs to make connections with not only other C-levels, but with the larger employee base as well. This is a new leader that you’re bringing on, and they’re expected to lead your company. It seems obvious that they should be visible to employees, but it’s easy to overlook.
New executives should be in touch with the people under them—not just their direct reports, but the front-line employees beneath them, too. New CxOs should share their visions and the plans they have for taking the company forward.
Making personal appearances and discussing issues of importance, priorities, and ideas is the best way to get a CxO engaged with the workforce. It’s easiest to do this at very small companies, but even larger companies can take steps to make a new CxO more visible.
Know When to Let Go
At a certain point, executive onboarding needs to stop. If you stick with your 90-day plan, you shouldn’t have any problem turning over full control to your new CxO. There are always more things to learn, and it can be tempting to continue teaching and hand-holding long after it’s necessary.
You hired a capable and effective leader, and it’s time you let them do their job. Different companies and CxOs will have unique onboarding requirements, so you may find that 90 days is way too long or doesn’t cover everything your CxO needs to know.
That’s why executive onboarding is a constantly evolving process. Take a look at how effective your onboarding process was and adapt the procedure for your next new executive. Ask current executives what they wish they would have known when they started, and incorporate that into the onboarding process.
Like any other business process, executive onboarding is one that requires continual refinement.
Plan, Execute, and Improve Executive Onboarding
Whether you’re about to bring on a new CxO or not, you should be prepared to start the onboarding process. Circumstances change quickly, and you might need a new exec sooner than you think. It’s time to get your executive onboarding plan together, no matter what stage of hiring (or not hiring) you’re in.
The most important thing to remember in executive onboarding is that it can always be improved. Keep the lines of communication open, identify strong mentors that can help you improve the process without breaking confidentiality, and observe new execs to see what’s working and what’s not.
In the end, you’ll find that you save time and effort in the onboarding process.
And don’t forget to download our 90-day executive onboarding template!