Top 4 Executive Onboarding Mistakes

If you are starting a new executive role or onboarding executives into roles where it is important that they hit the ground running and contribute quickly, there are a few things you should know.

Data shows that rigorous executive onboarding programs can reduce time to full productivity by 40% and improve new hire retention by 50%. But strangely, even the majority of Fortune 500 companies fail to deliver comprehensive onboarding targeted to cultural and leadership assimilation.

But those big companies seem to do OK, so does it really matter? 

Well, multiple research studies (from C-Suite Analytics and Employee Benefits News) also tell us that employee turnover in the U.S. costs companies up to 30-40% of an executive’s annual salary. That the total annual cost is $25 billion. And that turnover costs shareholders a full 38% of additional value.

The culprit? The cost to hire a replacement makes it nearly prohibitive NOT to get executive assimilation right the first time. 

An article from the Center for American Progress, which studied 11 research papers published over the course of 15 years, found that turnover can cost organizations anywhere from 16% to 213% of the lost employee’s salary. Jobs at senior or executive levels tend to have “disproportionately high turnover costs” ranging up to 213%. For example, replacing an executive who makes $150,000 annually could cost as much as $319,500.

So how do we ensure that new executives assimilate well and ‘get it right the first time’ when it comes to demonstrating visible leadership fast? AND how do we do this well in the middle of a pandemic when people working outside of the office makes it increasingly harder to connect? 

First, don’t underestimate the need for those connections – that need is stronger than ever. After years of helping new executives assimilate into new organizations, new roles, and new responsibilities, we have seen some patterns that apply today, even in the midst of COVID. There are 4 major mistakes we see most often that can be easily avoided with a bit of forethought.

4 Onboarding Mistakes Executives Make

1. They don’t ask for help.

It’s easy to think you were hired to be the rock-star that you are. You are likely coming into a new role to be the expert. And that can make it difficult to admit you need help, and ask for it. My observation is that even most experts (while they may be rock stars) are not experts in onboarding. Asking for help assimilating to a new organization or level is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign that you take setting yourself up for success seriously, are committed to the organization and want to get off on the right foot the first time. It might take someone by surprise, but asking for help with your assimilation should demonstrate how seriously you take this. You have one chance to get this right and that matters to you. That’s a good surprise. 

2. They turn assimilation ‘meet & greets’ into chat sessions. 

Any new executive is likely going to find a plethora of meetings on the calendar. “Meet & Greets” with new peers, team members, senior leaders and support staff. It is tempting to spend most of these meetings chit-chatting and getting to know each other. This is important, but if is the only thing you spend time on, those meetings will be a huge lost opportunity to send a clear message. The message should be, ‘I want to get to know you and there are some specific things I have thought of ahead of time that I would like to understand from you.’ Having a clear agenda and set of questions for these meetings is a great way to demonstrate visible leadership quickly and let people know that while you want to get to know them, you also value their time and you mean business…from the first interaction.

3. They don’t earn the credibility to critique and correct problems they find. 

When you join a new organization, especially to fix something that is broken, it is easy to identify everything that doesn’t work the way it should. That’s human nature. As we assimilate, we process information by comparing it to what ‘good’ looks like. But in many organizations, even broken processes have a proud legacy or a history that brought them to this point. If you make those observations before you really understand the legacy that got them there, you can get discredited pretty fast. We earn the ability to critique and make changes by understanding and building on the legacy that got them where they are. Even if you know exactly what needs to be done, build your credibility by listening and asking about that legacy. It will pay you back in speed when you begin to make changes.  

4. They don’t enroll people in their vision. 

As you figure out what you need to change, or the vision you have for your new organization going forward, it’s important to remember that you cannot get there alone. There is no magic wand you can wave to get people on board… and frankly, they may not be. In many cases, new executives are brought in to make changes and upset the proverbial apple cart. There may be resistance. Your job is to create alignment. Take a broad look when identifying stakeholders and seek to get as many on board as possible. One-on-one meetings are great for this. So are team meetings where time is spent brainstorming, solving problems, and listening. Spend the time explaining your vision, inviting a reaction, and really listening to the responses. This will shape how you execute and will equip you to assimilate to the culture faster. When people are enrolled in your vision, they will carry it for you, allowing you to do exponentially more through others. This is visible leadership.

Joining a new organization at the executive level is the perfect opportunity to send key messages immediately. During your first 90 days, people are likely paying attention and watching for clues to who you are as a leader and what is important. They are also trying to figure out how they need to ‘be’ around you. You may have been hired to come in and be the rock star, but even stars have roadies and producers that help with their success. 

An assimilation coach can help you craft the right messaging in both your actions and your words. This is not the time to worry about someone finding out that you are ‘not’ what they expected – it is about proving what you ARE right away. That can be someone who understands well where their resources are and how to leverage them to support you in delivering exponentially more. This investment demonstrates that you are committed to the new organization and you know you have one chance to get it right, and THAT MATTERS.

Across the c-suite, we help onboarding executives:

  • Understanding the politics and complex relationships in a new organization… without a misstep
  • Building alliances and rallying support for what they are there to do… without being undermined
  • Crafting key messages to send right away… and how to send them to build support
  • Building and socializing a strategy for their new team
  • Creating a shared vision… without dictating your own
  • Understanding and mitigating risks
  • Avoiding hidden landmines and traps… without getting caught in them
  • Assessing the team and identifying gaps… while building a high performing team
  • Understanding what is expected by people who have disparate expectations… and balancing them well
  • Helping them to see how they can add value immediately to their team, peers and clients
  • Identifying what problems are likely to arise that they can get ahead of
  • Building and socializing an effective 90 – 100-day plan 

Essentially, an assimilation coach can help organize your assimilation information so you can demonstrate visible leadership while drinking from the ‘fire hose’ without drowning. They can also clearly identify cultural and fit elements before they derail a new hire. And perhaps more importantly, your coach can ask direct questions that you may not want to. That can be invaluable. 

Of course, many of the typical mistakes new executives make can be avoided with some forethought, but a coach (who often starts before the executive steps foot in their first Zoom call) can help ensure that the executive has a clear understanding of all expectations and is prepared to demonstrate visible leadership fast. They provide a more intentional integration into the culture and politics and can help navigate rough waters where getting the relationships ‘right’ the first time is critical.

If you would like to strategize around how to avoid some of these common mistakes or see if an assimilation coach would be a fit, we are happy to talk. Call us, it’s what we do.