Cornerstone International Group’s Göran Jansson compared hiring an executive search firm to getting a liver transplant. As he put it, most avoid transplants if they can. But when they need one, they want the best doctor they can find. Those doctors not only transplant the liver, they mitigate the risks of organ rejection. When your new hire is complicated enough to warrant using an executive recruiter, use the best you can find, and then manage the onboarding risks.

10-20% of kidney transplant patients experience at least one episode of rejection. This compares to the 40% of new leaders that fail in their first 18 months. The good news is that both risks can be mitigated with the right approach.

Carrying through the analogy with the help of Medline Plus:

“Transplant rejection is a process in which a transplant recipient’s immune system attacks the transplanted organ or tissue.”

=> The executive onboarding comparable is cultural rejection.

“Your body’s immune system usually protects you from substances that may be harmful, such as germs, poisons, and sometimes, cancer cells.”

=> The executive onboarding comps are new leaders that are poor fits themselves or bring in old colleagues who spread like cancer and don’t fit as a group.

“These harmful substances have proteins called antigens coating their surfaces. As soon as these antigens enter the body, the immune system recognizes that they are not from that person’s body and that they are ‘foreign,’ and attacks them.”

=> The executive onboarding comps are old habits and practices that won’t work in the new organization like the failure to switch sides of the road when driving from Ethiopia into Kenya.

“To help prevent this reaction, doctors type, or match both the organ donor and the person who is receiving the organ. The more similar the antigens are between the donor and recipient, the less likely that the organ will be rejected.”

=> The executive onboarding comp is assessing the fit between the new executive’s behavioral, relationship, attitude, value and behavioral preferences and the culture. The closer the fit, the easier onboarding will be.

“Doctors use medicines to suppress the recipient’s immune system. The goal is to prevent the immune system from attacking the newly transplanted organ when the organ is not closely matched. If these medicines are not used, the body will almost always launch an immune response and destroy the foreign tissue.”

=> The executive onboarding comp is found in aligning the organization before starting to recruit, acquiring new executives in the right way, and then accommodating, assimilating and accelerating new leaders through the eight essential steps of executive onboarding.

“There are three types of rejection:


  • Hyperacute rejection occurs a few minutes after the transplant when the antigens are completely unmatched. The tissue must be removed right away so the recipient does not die.
  • Acute rejection may occur any time from the first week after the transplant to 3 months afterward. All recipients have some amount of acute rejection.
  • Chronic rejection can take place over many years. The body’s constant immune response against the new organ slowly damages the transplanted tissues or organ.”


The executive onboarding comps are:

Hyperacute. Over the past sixteen years, our firm, PrimeGenesis, has reduced the rate of executive onboarding failure from 40% to below 5%. What we can’t fix are the hyperacute rejections from complete cultural disconnects. When those happen, protect the recipient. Cut your losses and make the offending party go away quickly.

Acute. The key for a new executive in this situation is to converge before they evolve. Generally, if they can get a head start, manage their message, and build their team, they’ll do fine. If you see early signs of acute rejection, adjust the plan.

Chronic rejection happens when new leaders’ early actions and words play well with the crowd, but do not match their fundamental, underlying beliefs. They can fake it early on, but at some point, they’ll get caught – and rejected. Unfortunately, they either have integrity or they don’t.