There are two sides to today’s headline: “United Hires President Dropped By American.” It’s a major coup for United, giving it more bench strength when it needs it. And it disrupts the 20-year relationship between Scott Kirby who is moving and Doug Parker who is staying on as American’s CEO. Any senior executive switching companies faces risks around fit, delivery and adjustment. They are magnified for an executive joining a competitor.

We know that 40% of executives fail in new jobs and that executive onboarding is key to reducing that risk. The general prescription is to get a head start, manage your message, set direction and build your team and then sustain momentum and deliver results. Here’s how they are different for someone joining a competitor.


Get a head start.

The general advice is to take advantage of the “fuzzy front end” between accepting a job and actually starting to get set up, learn, and jump-start relationships with your boss, team members and direct reports, as well as key assistants, clients, customers, founders or “shadow” board members.

The biggest issue for someone joining a competitor is establishing trust. Your boss, team members, direct reports and the like know you are switching sides. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. So they will know you are more likely to switch sides again than is someone who has been loyal. This is why people joining an organization from a competitor should invest even more time in building relationships before day one than normal.


Manage your message.

In general, new leaders should not talk about their previous organizations at all during their early days, switching the “we” to their new organizations immediately. No one wants to hear about your old organization. If you talk about it, they’ll think you miss it or you think it’s better. Talking about your old organization makes people ask, “If it’s so great, why did you leave?”

The opposite is true if you join a competitor. Your messaging must deal with why you switched. There are two parts to this: 1) Why you left the old organization and 2) Why you joined the new organization. Focus on commonalities like customers and industry. Hit on differences to explain why it was right for you to have been at the competitor before and how that prepared you to help your new organization do even better.


Set direction and build your team.

The art in executive onboarding is in knowing when to pivot from converging to evolving. You have to become part of the team before you can evolve the team.

The challenge when joining a competitor is overcoming the trust issues to get accepted into the team. Ideally, you’d do that before you pivot. In practice there are always going to be some that doubt you. So, pivot when you have a critical mass of people that are willing to trust you, without waiting for everyone.


Sustain momentum and deliver results.

This is not different. No matter where you’ve come from, after you pivot from converging to evolving have your key people aligned around a new imperative, keep going. Onboarding takes longer than you think. People slip. Don’t let them. Once you’re moving, keep going.


Specific advice for United Airlines new president, Scott Kirby.

1. Invest in building trust with key people before your first day on the job. Go broader than you think you should. Spend more time with these people. Address the elephant in the room around why you left American, why Doug Parker either turned on you or let you leave.

2. Manage your message carefully. Don’t let others position you. Deal with the change from American to United explicitly.

3. Converge before you evolve, becoming part of the team before you start evolving it. Be careful about making any personnel moves too early.

4. Once you’ve got people aligned around an imperative, hit the accelerator and keep going.