40% of new leaders fail in their first 18 months. Witness Exxon’s new CFO, Kathryn Mikells who lasted less than 15 months at two of her last four companies. Further, she’s got all sorts of flashing red warning lights at Exxon. For her, it’s a new company in a new industry, based in a different country than she’s been in the last six years. And she’s the first outsider to join an executive committee of four white males with an average tenure of 36 years.

On the one hand, it looks like everything is stacked against her. Almost any set of assumptions plugged into our onboarding risk calculator suggests she should run, not walk away from this situation. But she’s not going to fail for one simple reason. Exxon’s board and management team cannot let her fail as it works to fend off activist investor Engine No. 1.

Certainly, Mikells should work through the last four of the seven stages of executive onboarding.  She’s already through the stages of marketing, selling and buying. Now she needs to get a head start, converge, evolve, and adjust.


  1. Before the first contact, people need to get noticed, make their new employer aware of and then pay attention to them. This requires differentiated personal positioning and marketing. Done in Mikells’ case.
  2. Between the first contact and offer, don’t think anyone cares about you or what you can do. They don’t. Sell what you can do for them. Done in Mikells’ case.
  3. At the offer, switch from selling to buying with due diligence to overcome your bias to accept the offer. The onboarding risk calculator suggests Mikells may have blown this step.
  4. Leverage the Fuzzy Front End between acceptance and start, skipping that problematic break to get a head start, jump-starting critical relationships in particular. Mikells must do this with her peers and board advisors as well as key people on her team.
  5. The early days of new jobs are littered with the remains of failed executives who tried to lead before they had earned the right to lead. Mikells must keep converging until it’s time to pivot. She has to remember that her direct reports can undermine her by passive aggressively continuing to do things exactly as they have.
  6. Then, at the right time, pivot from converging to evolving, co-creating a burning imperative inspiring and enabling all with the mission and the mission-critical parts of their jobs. Mikells has to time this pivot right.
  7. When things change, you can’t control that. But you can control how you react to change to do their job, their way. Mikells needs allies to help her see the changes.


At the same time, the more Exxon CEO, Darren Woods and his team invest in getting Mikells’ onboarding right now, the less remedial efforts will be required later. The steps from their side include aligning, acquiring, accommodating, assimilating and accelerating.

ALIGN: Make sure your organization agrees on the need for and delineation of the executive roles you seek to fill. Probably not a problem in Exxon’s case.

ACQUIRE: Identify, recruit, select, and get people to join the team. Done in this case.

ACCOMMODATE: Give new executives the tools they need to do the work. Ideally Woods will have co-created a personal onboarding plan with Mikells, collaborating to think through her job, deliverables, stakeholders, messages, pre-start and day one plans.

Concurrently, someone should be working to accommodate Mikells’ work needs (desks, phones, computers, IDs, payroll, forms, etc.) and personal needs (family moves, housing, schools, etc.)

ASSIMILATE: Help them join with others so they can do the work together. The critical piece for Woods and Mikells is how Woods sets up Mikells’ initial conversations with others and how much they perceive Woods and the other executives are really committed to Mikells’ success.

ACCELERATE: Help them and their team deliver better results faster. This is about inspiring, enabling and empowering Mikells to do the job she was hired to do, initially the “Exxon” way, and eventually her way once she’s done converging.