Onboard the Executives, Too!

Companies often mistakenly assume executives are ready on day one to take on their roles and offer too little support.

Monday, December 9, 2013
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New executives need more than a badge, quick office tour and computer instructions.

Deloitte Consulting seems to have this figured out. At the New York-based business and human capital consultancy, the onboarding process for principals and directors begins with a two-day, highly interactive Welcome to Deloitte program that goes well beyond the administrative -- such as getting badges and laptops.

On the contrary, the Welcome program includes an overview of the organization and culture, schooling on company strategies, as well as an overview of how best to network at Deloitte. A lunch is held with a fellow executive and key introductions are made in the office. An advisory board of six key leaders representing the new hire's geography, industry sector and service areas is put together for many new directors and principals -- the overall goal being to put the right people together for the right conversations.  

"The most effective part of our onboarding program for executives is the opportunities that we create for dialogue with other leaders and networking. The advice and storytelling that occurs through their early experiences at Deloitte make a big difference in the acclimation and traction of the professionals we hire from other organizations at the partner, principal or director level, which helps lead to their success," says Craig Gill, chief learning officer with Deloitte in Parsippany, N.J.

The success of the program, in turn, is measured in a number of ways, such as periodic surveys at days two, 30, 90 and 365. What gets measured gets done, and is more likely to result in key leaders and departments reaching goals, such as retaining top talent.

Jim Wyrobek, a specialist leader in Deloitte's strategy and operations practice, had worked at two smaller organizations earlier in his career. At Deloitte, he was initially concerned about the best way to quickly build a network of colleagues and get his arms around the company's structure, core values and breadth of clients, says Gill.

Those fears quickly dissipated. "Through the Welcome to Deloitte program, he connected with a mentor to help him navigate our culture, build his network and provide tips on internal operations. He was also assigned a long-term counselor who provides him with coaching and advice on project assignments and performance management throughout his Deloitte career," says Gill.

Wyrobek was also able to participate in Deloitte University programs specific to the clients he counsels in the insurance industry. "Jim says all this helped him transition to Deloitte," says Gill, "and helped him to feel like a true team member, instead of one person within a large organization."

But despite success stories such as Deloitte's, many companies are not onboarding their executives -- or their onboarding process falls short of meeting executives' needs.  A recent global survey from executive-search firm Egon Zehnder found fewer than 30 percent of the 500 executives surveyed received integration support when transitioning into a new role -- and of those, most said it included help with things such as IT and telephone issues, as well as facilitated introductions to peers and other stakeholders. Seventy-four percent of those surveyed said integration support is most helpful when it starts before their first day on the job. They also would have liked help in navigating internal networks and politics, as well as understanding the internal dynamics of a new team. They said they would have benefited from getting insight into the organizational culture and receiving constructive feedback. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said it took six months or more to effectively assume their role.

In today's competitive environment, do companies have the luxury of such a long learning curve? It's costly if leadership does not hit the ground running. Companies can ill-afford to have their new executives fail to such a degree they depart on their own or are fired. "The war for talent is at an all-time high and 40 percent of new leaders fail during the first 18 months," says Kim Shanahan, managing director of Korn/Ferry International's Human Resources Center of Expertise in Reston, Va.

A Costly Missed Opportunity

Some companies don't see the value in executive onboarding to the degree they should. "They think once they've hired the person, they are done. Onboarding takes a lot of work, which also means costs, especially for senior people who are external hires," says Greig Schneider, U.S. managing partner for Egon Zehnder in Boston.

There's nothing new about the lack of onboarding for executives. "It's never been a priority. It's only recently that it's beginning to get some attention," says Schneider.

How is it that executive onboarding hasn't been atop the must-do list? "There is a general belief that because of their career level, senior executives do not need onboarding outside of the tactical orientation. It may be presumed that the new hire knows everything necessary about the company, industry and position. Moreover, there may be a fear of creating a perception help is needed because the executive may be lacking," says Kimberly Duffy-Wylam, president and managing partner at Vantagen, a human resource and benefits consulting firm in Clarks Summit, Pa.

Then too, she says, the onboarding process sometimes is not assigned to a key member of the organization. "Managers for senior executives simply do not have the time or do not make the time for acclimation. HR departments are staffed to support the masses and/or business segments within an organization and not designated to senior-level positions," she says.

Nevertheless, Duffy-Wylam says, HR should be involved in executive onboarding. "It is extremely imperative that newly hired executives receive a comprehensive onboarding. HR professionals need to make certain this occurs," she says.

Without formalized onboarding efforts, new leaders don't reap the benefit of building relationships, clarifying expectations and establishing priorities early on.

Today, when every position is special and teams are horizontal and nimble, getting a new hire up to speed quickly and efficiently is critical, says Dana Ardi, founder of Corporate Anthropology Associates in New York. "If you define human capital as a critical element of success, then making the individual hire a part of a team is a powerful retention tool. Onboarding removes barriers to confusion about role and expectation, and provides the organization with a quick understanding of the special and unique talents of each individual hire."

To say that an opportunity is being missed is an understatement. It's a misplay that shows up on the bottom line. "Executives may not last, and that is a big investment in money, opportunity cost, morale and more. The average cost of a failed executive is $2.7 million and rising," says Shanahan.

Some Companies Wising Up

There's nothing like financial impact to get companies' attentions. Some organizations have experienced an executive onboarding gone bad, so they are reviewing and enhancing their onboarding procedures.

"A recent study by Impact Instruction Group, based in Dublin, Ohio, shows 71 percent of more than 90 individuals in human resources and learning and development roles surveyed were in the process of updating their executive-onboarding procedures," says Michelle Benjamin, CEO of TalentReady, a Bronx, N.Y.-based talent-development and management company.

Many companies are also migrating to a technology-based executive-onboarding system, instead of a paper-based or manual system, allowing for consistency and replication of the process throughout the corporation.

 Take, for example, ThoughtWorks, a Chicago-based software company with 29 offices in 12 countries. Jackie Kinsey, head of its global leadership-development practice, says her firm was hiring senior leaders and six months into their tenure, "they weren't loving us or we weren't loving them. We worked with a consultant and looked at our culture, looked at what it's like to work here from a leader's point of view," she says.

The consultant surveyed leaders and looked at factors such as openness, strategic-growth orientation and relationships. "This gave us some comparison points about our organization's culture versus other businesses," says Kinsey.  The results showed, among other things, that ThoughtWorks valued the entrepreneurial spirit and was not constrained by rules or processes. "So, from a leader's point of view, being open to discussion and debate and being able to build strong relationships are key attributes for us. People who were from a highly process-driven and structured business environment may not flourish here."

HR began working harder at executive integration. It pulled together a template for onboarding and showcased a couple of examples that had been completed globally. The template was shared with the regional "people teams" and they were encouraged to enhance the template for their entire [group of] senior-leader hires, says Kinsey.

"Senior leaders are assigned an onboarding buddy. They get someone for three months and, if needed, they get another person for three more months," says Kinsey. A buddy guides them through all aspects of the business, especially the cultural ones.

Though when an executive gets feedback varies, Nancy Kistler, ThoughtWorks' managing director for North America, says executives may get feedback as early as three months into their positions. "We see where they are [and] where they need to focus, and [we] provide a coach if needed, to reset their path."

The onboarding process is about connecting and collaborating, says Kinsey. Depending on the position, new hires may spend time with senior leaders from various regions or be assigned to a project site for six months. "We try to architect five years of networking in three months. One executive met 30 people even before day one in her position and another 30 were in her onboarding plan."

It's working. "Three years later, we're finding and keeping great senior leaders," says Kinsey.

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Then there's Kronos. During the time period between job acceptance and the first day newly hired executives join the company, they receive an overview of company strategy, functional road maps and organization charts. They receive a detailed calendar of appointments for the first 30 days to facilitate as many interactions with key stakeholders as possible.

While there is a set framework for executive onboarding at the Chelmsford, Mass.-based workforce-management company, it's not one-size-fits-all. A recently hired executive wanted to meet team members throughout his entire organization. A critical part of his job was driving innovation within the company's product portfolio, so he felt it was critical to get to his organization, and its talent, on a personal level.

"He conducted a series of employee meetings to find the people who would help him push the boundaries and were open to new ways of doing things. This approach wouldn't work for everyone, but it was perfect for him, given his business priorities and requirements," says David Almeda, chief people officer at Kronos.

The onboarding process at Kronos includes multiple touch points such as meetings, email and phone exchanges long before day one with the company. Executives are encouraged to participate in company events, such as a new-hire sales meetings or quarterly operational reviews.

Each department has an HR business partner who works closely with new executives in the first several weeks to help them navigate their new environment. Most importantly, says Almeda, executives meet with the CEO, with the more senior executives spending "a fair amount of time with him, learning the ins and outs of the organization and understanding our values."

The investment offers great returns. "We have meaningfully reduced the time it takes new hires to become productive," says Almeda.

The nonprofit world is turning to executive onboarding, too. Audubon, the New York-based conservation organization, has replaced nearly all of its senior executives over the last three years as part of a turnaround effort by CEO David Yarnold. Twice a year, all new leaders come to New York to meet other new leaders, as well as department heads and key staff from headquarters. "We pair key new hires with peer mentors so they have someone to turn to for advice, informal help, and to ask all those questions they might not want to ask their new boss," says Peter Vincent, vice president of human resources. "We send out The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins to new leaders managing staff, and the HR manager assigned to him or her helps develop the first-90-day plan. The HR manager calls and emails new hires to check on their progress and to catch any early signs of derailing."


Getting Results

There's no magic formula for creating an executive-onboarding program; however, there are some characteristics common in successful programs. Experts highlight a few of them.

* Start onboarding ASAP. Don't wait until day one, but begin as soon as the ink is dry on the contract. A practice leader at a global consulting firm used the few weeks between jobs to collaborate with soon-to-be colleagues on an important speech she made to an industry conference on her second official day with the firm. Other valuable pre-start activities include combing through relevant websites to glean industry data and trends, visiting and observing competitors' locations where possible and studying any available competitive analysis or market or customer-satisfaction data," says Tracy Benson, CEO of business consulting firm On the Same Page, in Katonah, N.Y.

* Marshal the firm's resources. At consulting firm KPMG, each senior candidate gets a customized entry program, including goals, a sponsor, a coach, a mentor and a road map for evaluation at certain intervals, like 30, 100 and 180 days, says Bruce Pfau, vice chair of human resources and communications in New York. A senior HR professional is dedicated solely to the executive/partner assimilation process there.

* Evaluate your program. "Don't be afraid to ask past hires for feedback on your onboarding process and solicit feedback from recent hires when the experience is fresh enough to garner recent perspectives," says Karen Schmidt, managing director of franchise development for executive search firm Sanford Rose Associates in Dallas. Onboarding, says George Bradt, co-author of The New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan, "is a crucible of leadership, a career-defining moment; do it wrong and there's all the pain."

Onboarding is a living, breathing, thing, says Will Staney, director of recruiting and strategic programs for San Francisco-based software company SuccessFactors. "The goal is for executives to be productive out of the gate. We want people meeting their teams, developing relationships as soon as possible, whether that might mean flying someone across the country, face time on Skype or taking advantage of our social-media community of new hires, recruiters and company veterans who -- in real time -- answer questions and share information so that new hires are engaged and up to speed quickly. In 2012, our attrition rate was 7.2 percent; since enhancing our practices, it's declined 50 percent. Onboarding right really pays off!"

See also:

What's the Secret for Your New CEO's Success? Onboarding

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