Articles by Others
Memo To New Executives: Get Ready Already
The challenges of 'onboarding' come at you
fast in the modern corporation.
By Kevin Cashman
What do the names John McLaren, Frank Blake and Robert Gates have in common?
All three offer rich examples of the trials and tribulations of transitioning to
executive positions while the world looks for immediate results.
McLaren, the new-as-of-this-month Seattle Mariners manager, had to literally get
off the bench (he was previously "bench coach") and direct the baseball team
after his boss' surprise resignation, which came midway through the Mariner's
best season in four years. His inauguration as a first-time skipper? Try to win
a road game less than 24 hours into the job.
The "welcome to the big leagues" moment for Blake? In January, he inherited not
only Home Depot CEO predecessor Robert Nardelli's position, but also a mob of
shareholders demanding an explanation for the incongruity between the retailer's
lagging financials and large executive compensation packages.
Not to be outdone is Gates' story. After passing the rigorous U.S. Senate's
confirmation hearings and emerging as Donald Rumsfeld's defense secretary
replacement, all he's had to do is solve the war in Iraq.
While especially daunting, these dilemmas illuminate the challenges confronting
leaders in a wide variety of roles and organizations. No matter if you're the
next Carly Fiorina, Michael Eisner or Maurice Greenberg, or someone assuming a
middle-management position, "getting up to speed"--something referred to as "onboarding"--is
a challenging, never-fast-enough rite of passage in today's results-demanding,
For the average corporate manager, it takes more than six months to hit a
break-even in which their organizational contribution surpasses the costs of
their being appointed in the first place. That means the better part of a year
feeling under-productive and overanxious as stakeholders clamor for more.
And if it's not telling enough that a hefty 70% of executives surveyed are
dissatisfied with their initial paths to productivity, perhaps today's new
leader failure rate is more convincing. Two of five senior leaders fail in their
new corporate roles within 18 months, costing companies a whopping $2.7 million
an instance, more if you consider the escalating costs of top CEOs.
Still, successful onboarding is entirely possible and provides a potent shot in
the arm for organizations, especially when stuck with for at least six months.
Tech company Texas Instruments (nyse: TXN - news - people ) shaved two months
off its full-productivity timeline just by being more intentional in its
orientation process. Window manufacturer Hunter Douglas reduced its six-month
turnover rate from 70% to 16% by investing more energy in onboarding. Ernst and
Young found that key employees who participated in a strategic orientation were
twice as likely to stay with the company more than two years.
Where to start? Research bears that much of the difference between successful
and unsuccessful onboarding hinges on leaders' abilities to set good goals and
build relational equity within the organization to help accomplish them. Whether
baked into a detailed succession plan (preferable) or just improvised
(probable), effectively onboarded leaders make positive first impressions and
put supportive networks to use. When challenges arise, they are dealt with
through a potent mix of strategy and collaboration. Variations of the
traditional, rank-oriented organizational chart can be mapped, depicting crucial
Equally important in today's environment, as John McLaren will tell you, is
getting some quick wins. There's no shorter way to gain stability and open up
doors than through victory. The words of first-century writer Publilius Syrus
weren't intended for a corporate audience, but might as well have been: "When
good fortune is on our side, popular favor bears her company."
Here are my responses to your questions related to this issue. Names of
individuals and their companies have been withheld to maintain openness.
President, Advertising Agency: I'm considering someone currently employed by a
much larger company for a C-level position in my organization. What are the most
difficult challenges with such a situation?
Kevin Cashman: The common mistake is to assume that leaders who've succeeded in
large, complex organizations will more easily succeed in smaller structures. The
reality is that big-to-small company leaders sometimes need more time to get
their bearings and gain an in-depth feel for how their leadership style suits
the new environment. Executives who've learned to move their old system to
facilitate growth may find themselves suddenly needing to forge alliances for
their newer, smaller companies from the "outside." The crucial process of
networking, therefore, can be a more difficult and time-consuming initiative.
Senior Manager, Health Care Services Industry: What best practices do you
recommend for a new manager's first day on the job?
In most cases, a new leader's early-on responsibilities are three-fold. First,
realize that the best first impression you can make isn't so much a presentation
that you give or action you make. Rather, it's that you simply listen, tuning
into the environment and its values system. Secondly, begin to build
relationships and earn trust as deeply and widely as you can through areas of
connection and common meaning. Finally, when the time is right, be clear about
leadership and strategic expectations you have. One effective way to go about
this is to openly convey your own personal style of leading and working with
others, including your experience with positive or negative organizational
cultures. Onboarding by quickly building a high-performing team will be directly
proportional to the openness and connection you embody.
Human Resources Coordinator, Transportation Industry: Is it a mistake to blend
management-level new hires with other recent staff hires into our orientation
For general orientation sessions that explain basic characteristics about the
organization and its general systems, it might be fine to mix groups. But for
bona fide onboarding, which focuses on quickly getting more senior people to
high performance levels, it's important to organize participants into specific
peer groups, and in addition provide personal coaching to accelerate
Kevin Cashman is founder and CEO of LeaderSource, A Korn/Ferry
Company (www.leadersource.com), a global leadership development, executive
coaching and team-effectiveness consultancy headquartered in Minneapolis. He has
authored four books on leadership and career development, including the
bestseller Leadership From The Inside Out (revised edition out soon).
Next up: The M.B.A. degree and its effects on today's leaders. Please share your
About Sue Edwards:
Sue Edwards is a Leadership and Business coach who specializes in working
with leaders in transition to new roles and new organizations. To download a
free copy of Sue’s report: “Top Ten Success Factors (and Seven Deadly Sins) for
Leaders Transitioning into Organizations”, click here