Organizations can’t deploy a consistent approach to executive onboarding because each new leader is different. And new leaders can’t onboard themselves on their own because they don’t understand their new organizations. Instead, organizations and new leaders must do it together: two ways – especially with regard to welcoming new leaders, building reciprocal relationships, and co-creating the way forward to deliver better results faster.

Centerstone’s Kim Villeneuve says the key to successful executive onboarding is building “reciprocal relationships” between executives joining an organization and the executives welcoming in the new leader. She suggests doing this through orientation, immersion, integration, and development – all of which need to be measured. The most important is integration, building out the interdependencies.

Organizations choose new executives because they have capabilities the rest of the team does not have. If organizations focus on onboarding new executives into existing teams, they miss opportunities to evolve those teams by introducing new executives.

Villeneuve’s colleague, Rochelle Sherlock, went further in her 2022 doctoral dissertation, noting that successful onboarding requires dealing with situational, organizational, and individual factors via interpersonal interaction. This requires integrating socialization, transitional, and practical thinking into a Complex Response Process because human interactions are “nonlinear, self-organizing, and emergent.”

In other words, “Human interactions and patterns of behavior that give rise to social structure defy reason, are unpredictable, and therefore cannot be controlled.” She notes, “People create and are created by their social reality.” Re-read that sentence. There’s no way you absorbed it the first time. I certainly did not.

This flows directly into her conclusions:

  1. Executive integration is multi-faceted, non-linear, and unpredictable.
  2. There is a performance paradox where executives are hired to perform, but performance doesn’t guarantee integration. (Note integration does not guarantee performance either.)
  3. Executives must be a culture fit or at least culturally compatible to integrate successfully.
  4. Organizational factors, namely executive selection, structuring learning, and fostering connections, interact with other factors to affect integration.
  5. Individual factors, namely job choice, listening and learning, and building relationships do the same.

The Seven Stages of Executive Onboarding

This is why you need a combined organizational and new leader two-way approach to the seven stages of executive onboarding:

1. Before the first contact:

  • Organizations should get all aligned around the need for specific new leaders, the roles they’ll fill, how others will interact with them, and their onboarding plans.
  • New leaders should think through their own motivation, strengths, and personal preferences to build, seed, and communicate a differentiated personal positioning.

2. Between the first contact and offer:

  • Organizations acquiring new leaders should probe the only three interview questions: Will you love the job? (Motivation) Can you do the job? (Strengths) Can we tolerate working with you? (Fit)
  • New leaders should sell before buying, answering those three interview questions with the different answers most appropriate for the particular organization with which they are interviewing.

3. At the offer:

  • Organizations switch from buying to selling at the offer and should help new leaders with their due diligence, making sure they’re going to fit and sharing Realistic Job Previews – acquiring the right new leaders in the right way.
  • New leaders should switch from selling to buying, doing real due diligence to mitigate personal, role, and organizational risk.

4. In the Fuzzy Front End between acceptance and start:

  • Organizations should accommodate new leaders, making sure key stakeholders welcome them in, and assembling the tools they need to do their work.
  • New leaders should get head starts, jump-starting critical relationships in particular.

5. In the early days of new jobs all should pause to accelerate:

  • Organizations should help new leaders assimilate into the organization, orienting and immersing them, fostering connections and helping to structure learning.
  • New leaders should adapt and converge, learn, and build relationships up, down and across until it’s time to pivot. (Those working remotely should over-invest in early live, face-to-face meetings leveraging all five senses to build relationships in ways that can’t be built virtually.)

6. Then, at the right time, all should pivot from converging to evolving:

  • This has to be a two-way, integrated process with new leaders and their teams co-creating their new direction and social reality and then following through to accelerate together and deliver better results faster.

7. As things change (and they will):

  • All need to control how they react to change to do their ever-evolving jobs the ever-evolving ways of doing things, continuing to develop their relationships and strengths along the way over time.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #807) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.