July 22, 2021

Clare Morrison-Porter

New Leader Onboarding: How to Keep the Momentum Going

8 minutes

You’ve hired a talented new leader, announced their appointment to the company, and assured your shareholders that a bigger and brighter future awaits. Great. Now what’s the strategy to deliver on that promise?

It’s no exaggeration to say that leadership transitions are critical to the success of a business. Nine out of ten teams with a successfully onboarded leader will meet their three-year performance goals, according to McKinsey.

On the other end of the spectrum, the prognosis is bleak. 

For executives new to that level, the rate of failure within 18 months can be as high as 40%. Based on findings from multiple studies, McKinsey calculated that between 27% and 46% of all executive transitions are determined to be failures or disappointments after two years. 

The numbers don’t bode well, but they’re not inevitable either. When organizations manage the onboarding process well, and have a strategy in place to keep the momentum going, a new leader can be just the ticket to sustained business growth and success.

Challenges Leaders Face During Onboarding

Onboarding new leaders can be tough. Whether the new leader is an external hire or an internal transfer, they need time to understand their role and the broader organization it operates within. And stakeholders want them leading now.

Getting to grips with a new organization often means months of 1:1 meetings. And, with the onset of the pandemic relegating all meetings to Zoom, leaders face an extra barrier between themselves and the teams they need to bond and build rapport with.

This reason for failure was highlighted in McKinsey’s research, which found 68% of transitions falter on issues related to an organization’s culture and people. New leaders need help to navigate this minefield, but it’s help that isn’t often at hand—only 32% of global leaders feel that their organizations have what it takes to support new leaders. 

Why? Well, research suggests that onboarding new leaders is often done with a ‘hands-off’ approach and is treated as a one-time event that lacks any longer term momentum. 

It’s not an approach that works. Change that pattern by updating your onboarding strategy with proven best practices and technology that enables new leaders to start working toward their business goals from day one.

New Leader Onboarding Best Practices

The internet is awash with advice articles and new leader onboarding best practices. While the nature of leadership is that new leaders can be (and often are) pulled in multiple directions at once, a few guiding principles will help to maintain the momentum of the onboarding process. 

  1. Prioritize the cultivation of trust before anything else

An organization is built on its people. For new leaders—who are often brought in to drive strategic change of growth—having the support of employees is non-negotiable to success. Siddharth Taparia, an SAP Executive, summarized why trust simply has to be a leader’s number one priority. Writing in Fast Company, he said:

“At the end of the day, culture and the way people work with each other on your watch is what has to come first. The people you work with have to trust you and believe in the culture you are building before they can believe in and ultimately execute the strategy you are giving them.”

Susan Bond, a Leadership Coach, shared this call to action. Today’s organizations are constantly changing and she noted that many executives underestimate how difficult it can be to navigate that while building trust at all levels. Building up a “trust bank” is vital to being able to weather changes while a leader is still getting their feet comfortable under the desk. 

Companies will do well to elevate the building of trust through their new leader onboarding strategy, understanding that the bonds built during this time will pay dividends when it comes to implementing positive changes further down the line.

  1. Promote candor and visibility across the organization

Joining a new company as a leader is a bit like being presented with an aeroplane’s black box. All the answers are contained within, but it takes a certain level of skill to access them.

Leaders have the odds stacked against them. Many onboarding programs focus primarily on bringing a leader up to speed on projects and processes in their specific area. This has the effect of narrowing their focus before they have a chance to fully comprehend the organization as a whole—its strengths, shortcomings, and quirks. 

In addition, while new leaders may ask for candid feedback and information, many employees are understandably hesitant about being judged as negative, or creating a damaging first impression. We talk more about ways to overcome this in our blog post, ‘Leadership Transition Tips from ThoughtExchange’s Chief People Officer’.

It’s of the utmost importance that new leaders have visibility and insights into the full reality of the business, not a sugar-coated version. Organizations must create an environment where employees feel psychologically safe to express their views and opinions. An Enterprise Discussion Management (EDM) platform can help by anonymizing employee input, encouraging people to share their thoughts in an unfiltered way.

  1. Make sure a new leader can walk before they run

With the best practices already discussed, this one might seem like a given. But it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the burden of expectation new leaders face when joining an organization. A poorly-executed onboarding process can be a shortcut to leaders making poor decisions before they truly understand the nuances of the business they have joined. 

It’s reassuring to note that, on average, new leaders have more time than they may think to make. Of external hires, 92% take more than 90 days to reach full productivity, and the number is still high at 72% for internal transfers. Just as a new leader has to understand the pulse of the company, those responsible for the onboarding process need to take the pulse of the new leader—and make sure they don’t stumble before they find their footing.

New Leader Onboarding Checklist

A strategic business review is found in the toolkit of many new leaders. Almost 60% of successful executives conduct one within two years of joining a company, and the success of the decisions made in the process will be dependent on how well that leader was onboarded.

To set a new leader up for long-term success, the transition plan devised by Scott Keller and Mary Meany in ‘Leading Organizations: Ten Timeless Truths’ is a good place to start. We recommend working with new leaders to build knowledge in each of the five areas of focus using Exchanges, our way of scaling group discussions quickly. 

  • The business

New leaders need a complete, unbiased perspective on the whole of the business for their strategic plans to be accurate and have any hope of succeeding. They need to understand the company’s strengths and weaknesses so when teams are mobilized, everyone is headed in the right direction. Gathering responses at scale can help new leaders gauge overall sentiment quickly.

Suggested Exchange question: What are your thoughts on our strategic priorities?

  • The culture

Every company culture is different, and the incentives and systems that work in one can be disastrous in another. Leaders have the power to shape organizational culture and lead by example, but only after they’ve got their head around the current state of affairs. Asking open-ended questions is a great way of soliciting honest and unexpected feedback.

Suggested Exchange question: What advice do you have for me to be successful as a leader in this organization?

  • The team

Company performance is dependent on having the right people in the right roles—and on having the right roles in the first place. A new leader must be able to recognize the dynamics at work and be able to balance skills, attitudes, and team structure to get the best out of every individual. Canvassing opinions anonymously and with our patented anti-bias technology helps to avoid the loudest voices in the room being heard first and foremost.

Suggested Exchange question: What has gotten in the way of our success as a team? 

  • The individual

It’s important that new leaders quickly assume a role that only they can play, rather than getting distracted or focusing too much time in the wrong areas. Knowledge of organizational gaps can be gleaned from asking open-ended questions, which in turn will help a new leader to understand just where they best fit in.

Suggested Exchange question: What’s important for me to understand as I step into this role?

  • Other stakeholders

No man (or woman) is an island, and leaders need to understand both their own mandate and what expectations other stakeholders have of them. Building strong, trusting relationships is key, and an Exchange is the perfect opportunity to practice those listening skills. 

Suggested Exchange question: What do you want leadership to understand as plans are being made for the coming year?

The Secret to Maintaining Onboarding Momentum

In years past, getting a new leader up to speed in the five areas outlined above would have required tens, maybe hundreds, of conversations. But sequential 1:1 meetings overload new leaders with individual priorities when what they really need is collective priorities. 

That’s where ThoughtExchange comes in. Imagine being able to hand a new leader a folder of valuable insights into their goals and objectives, data on the challenges the team has faced, and a briefing on any employee concerns about the change in leadership. From their first day in the office, that new leader would be months ahead in terms of strategic knowledge than someone brought in using a traditional onboarding process. 

That’s not the only advantage. Even with a well executed onboarding plan, timing is key. McKinsey described the challenge: “As with spinning plates, do it too slowly, and they lose momentum and crash to the ground; do it too quickly, and they spin out of control.”

With ThoughtExchange, you can easily replicate and scale the exact process that has been proven to work in your organization. The Ramp New Hires and Promotions Exchange cadence lets you set and repeat your onboarding strategy so you can ramp new leaders at an accelerated pace and with all the information you need. 

The secret to better leader onboarding isn’t rocket science, but it does require planning for something more than a one-time event. Layer your guiding principles with technology that accelerates trust and understanding between a leader and their company, and your organization will pick up the momentum it needs to onboard new leaders more effectively. 

Learn more about how ThoughtExchange can support your onboarding process.

Clare Morrison-Porter
Born in London (UK), Clare now calls BC her home. After a stint spent marketing folding bikes, she took on new biz for an agency before landing in the heart of Canada’s tech scene. Today, she writes for companies including Google Cloud, Hootsuite, and ThoughtExchange.

Gain clarity, not clutter.
Turn insights into action today.