It’s generally accepted that a board of directors’ main responsibility is to hire and fire its CEO. The best boards go one step further and take an active role in acquiring, accommodating, assimilating, and accelerating new CEOs. The prerequisite to successful onboarding is getting everyone aligned around expectations before talking to any candidates. 40% of new leaders fail in their first 18 months. Onboarding new CEOs well and reducing that failure rate is one of the highest value creating activities for any board.
Best practices across the steps based on work I did with Mary Vonnegut:
Start by stopping to reconfirm your organization’s purpose, priorities and desired results. Think through what went well and less well when you onboarded other CEOs or senior leaders in the past. Map out clear, simple messages about this onboarding to stakeholders and potential new CEOs. Pull them all together in a recruiting brief and onboarding plan. Investment of time here makes everything else more effective and efficient.
Assemble a deep slate of strong candidates all at the same time. With options, you won’t feel you have to close the sale with your lead candidate if it’s not 100% right for everyone.
While candidates can focus on getting the offer, and then take a step back to evaluate the opportunity, you have to buy and sell at the same time. So treat the offer as just one part of a strategic sale. The way you handle the offer and support your potential new CEO’s due diligence efforts will impact the way he or she feels about you and your organization, with implications far beyond whether the answer is “yes” or “no.” You want them to say yes if taking the job is the right move for them, their supporters, and the organization over time. You want a “no, thanks” if it’s not.
Co-creating a personal onboarding plan starts your working relationship. Work with the CEO to think through the job, its deliverables, stakeholders, message, pre-start and day one plans.
How you make the announcement is one of the most important ways you influence how welcome, valued and valuable your new CEO feels. Map stakeholders. Clarify messages and timing of conversations before and after the formal announcement. Then implement, track and adjust as appropriate up to and through day one. Don’t leave first impressions to chance, because while people don’t always remember what others did or said, they always remember how they felt.
Make sure someone accommodates your new CEO’s work needs (desk, phone, computer, ID, payroll, forms, etc.) and personal needs (family move, housing, schools, etc.)
Assimilation done well makes things far easier. Getting it wrong triggers relationship risks. Set up onboarding conversations for your new CEO with members of his or her formal and informal/shadow networks. Do periodic check-ins with those networks. If there are issues, you want to know about them early, so you can help your new CEO adjust.
The first step in giving your new CEO the resources and support he or she needs is confirming your own requirement and appetite for change. If all you need is for your new CEO to assimilate into the existing culture, you can probably mentor him/her yourself or with an internal coach. However, if achieving the desired results requires your new CEO to assimilate into and transform the team, you will need to bring in external assistance. (If insiders could transform your culture, they would have done so already.)
Make sure your new CEO garners needed resources and establishes the building blocks of a high performing team over his or her first 100-days:
• What most needs to be accomplished (in place by day 30)
• Clarity around what’s getting done, when, by whom (by day 45)
• 1-2 strongly symbolic early wins (identified by day 60, delivered by month six)
• The right people in the right roles with the right support (by day 70)
• A communication plan implemented on an ongoing basis.