I gave a presentation on executive onboarding at ESIX yesterday to the heads of executive recruiting for about 30 companies. A lot can be gleaned from their comments and questions. Three main takeaways:

  • Transitions are easier and more effective in organizations with deliberate, systematic executive onboarding programs than in those with less formal programs.
  • The better executive onboarding programs are more complete, running from alignment through well into executives’ tenures.
  • In the best executive onboarding programs, incoming executives own their own onboarding success in partnership with their boss and supported by human resources.

Deliberate, systematic executive onboarding programs

Every organization onboards executives. How they do that ranges from pushing new executives off the cliff into the deep end of the pool assuming that if they are strong enough to get the job, they should be strong enough to figure out how to onboard themselves to more deliberate, systematic programs at the other end of the spectrum.

Those those in the room positioned more towards the cliff side of the spectrum were envious of those on the more deliberate side. They were in pain. Their recruiting teams put all their love and attention into sourcing, recruiting and selecting the right people. Then they turn them over to those new executives’ managers. When the new executives fail, as 40% do in their first 18 months, it’s bad for the new executives, bad for the organizations, and bad for them as recruiters.

Those on the more deliberate side were able to tell stories about how they had convinced their organizations to take onboarding more seriously. Some in the more data-driven companies moved their organizations by leveraging the data around the direct and indirect costs of failure (somewhere between two and twenty times executives’ total compensation depending upon the level.) Some in less data-driven companies shared anecdotes about the difference in impact between those onboarded well and less well.

Complete onboarding programs

The most complete onboarding programs start even before the first contact with candidates and run through five main blocks: align, acquire, accommodate, assimilate, accelerate.

  • Align: Get all stakeholders aligned around the role, requirements and onboarding program.
  • Acquire: Identify, recruit, select and get people to join the team.
  • Accommodate: Give new team members the tools they need to do work.
  • Assimilate: Help them join with others so they can do work together.
  • Accelerate: Help them and their team deliver better results faster.

Organizations implementing onboarding programs have tended to start with the accommodation block, using electronic tools to facilitate onboarding paperwork. Then they tend to move to orientation sessions. Then they give new people a list of ten people to meet in their “onboarding” time.

The first issue raised yesterday was how to get senior leaders aligned around how to onboard any particular executive and how to keep them aligned. What many fail to realize is that the alignment risk is rarely up and down. It’s across. The new executive’s boss and their boss are generally aligned. The people that fall out are peers of the new executive who are giving up part of their role to the new executive.

Everything communicates at every step of the way. That’s why it’s important to manage the complete program.

Onboarding Accountability

Who owns onboarding? Over the couple of decades I’ve been working on onboarding, I’ve yet to find a single line executive who really cares about it. Most see it as an HR process. At the same time, the vast majority of line executives care deeply about delivering results. When they see onboarding as a tool to help their new hires and their teams deliver better results faster they get very interested.

If HR or recruiting are accountable for onboarding, it’s an HR process to which hiring managers will comply if beaten into submission. If the new executive is accountable for their own onboarding in partnership with their direct supervisor, they commit to it. This is why it’s so valuable for the actual offer to be made by the new executive’s direct supervisor.