One may feel that onboarding has already been heavily analyzed and described in a mass of publications, podcasts, interviews, and books. But – even with this broad recognition and many special systems designed only to manage it – it’s still underdeveloped and underrated in lots of companies.
The recruitment process is costly and consumes the time and focus of several people in the organization. It is important that we use the outcome wisely. We must know too that almost no one can start to work fully effectively from day one. The estimates vary, but acc. to Harvard Business Review publications it takes no less than 3 months to properly onboard a person in the organization, bypassing all necessary information and getting one accustomed to the new environment. In the case of senior leaders it can take more than 6 months (source). The main goal of onboarding is to ensure that new employees can handle their responsibilities on their own, perform well, feel connected to the organization’s mission & culture, and bond with coworkers.
The area where one gets the impression that we still have a lot of work ahead of us is the onboarding of those with key senior managerial roles in our organizations (C-level, head, VP). While it would seem that organizations should be as committed as possible to onboard senior people in the greatest way and thereby give them full scope for effectiveness, this is often not the case.
Being a senior doesn’t mean performing from day one
It’s easy to assume that senior leaders and executives don’t need an onboarding process because they’re experienced professionals. Founders hire the top execs so they can bring value, rapid change, and expertise. Hence, there is a temptation to assume that they’re top performers who should be immediately ready to perform at their best level. This is a one-way ticket to underperformance, decreased motivation, and potentially leaving the job (we wrote about the underperformance in the blog post ‘Why don’t your employees perform (the way you want them to)?’.
Other founders’ unhealthy belief that they are less skilled can negatively impact the induction. This is especially true for first-time founders and managers. Thinking, “what can I really give them?” is wrong because the most crucial goal is to align new people with the culture, mission and vision, and these are the concepts best known by the founders.
Taking into consideration the seniority of executives, their broader perspectives and responsibilities, their onboarding process should be designed in a different way than for the low-level staff. What we need to keep in mind is that we hire key management to make a long-term impact, to make significant, strategic changes, not to deliver goals next quarter. The more senior the role, the more information new execs have to assimilate in the onboarding process, the deeper to understand the entirety of the mechanisms, and to challenge the status quo sometimes.
The steps to onboard senior execs
Their onboarding very often starts before the official start date – which normally is a good idea, but there is a thin line between onboarding and overusing the time and knowledge of a new person. When waiting for a new exec we can start giving them materials with important business information (after signing the contract and NDA, of course). Very often there is this temptation to ask them to “grasp” something, read, “dial in” and “be on the calls” during the notice period with their current employers. There is a paradox in this – the more responsible a person, the more likely they want to finish projects with their current employer. This is also the moment to make a closure, reset and be ready to start new challenges.
Of course, the executive hire will have to go through standard onboarding tasks, briefings on people processes, culture, and basic information. However, they should have a specific plan to meet with founders, other senior managers, investors (if necessary) and other crucial people who have strategic company knowledge. If we assume that after the first 3 months (=90 days), the exec should be ready to act independently, make good decisions and be aligned with the mission, vision and culture, then we have to prepare a plan for the first 30, 60 and 90 days so the direct manager (which in this case is a founder, CEO or COO) can track their progress.
It is a direct manager who is responsible for onboarding the new team member!
If the direct manager cannot allocate sufficient time, they should delegate this to another senior person with very specific instructions on what should be achieved after 30, 60 and 90 days.
The plan for the first 90 days should be primarily focused on people, strategy and culture.
After the first 30 days, senior managers have to know the basics so they can easily navigate through the organization. They are not yet expected to make business or people decisions. This is a time for learning and observation.
What can be expected after 30 days:
- all formalities done (contracts, equipment, access)
- all the online training courses completed
- knowing the basic processes in the company
- knowing the structure, connections and dependencies
- knowing the team and their responsibilities (by using 1:1 and skip level)
- meetings with key stakeholders done
- understanding the mission, vision and culture
- knowing crucial KPIs in their area.
- financials and budgets reviewed
By day 60, we move from a general understanding of the business to dig deeper into their own areas and start contributing. It is time to make and verify hypotheses.
What can be expected after 60 days:
- knowing and understanding what is expected from them
- knowing their team’s and individuals’ performance
- understanding if the current setup in their area is effective
- performing in the role with less guidance
- having the first quick wins (low hanging fruits)
- acting as culture ambassadors
Days 61-90 are the time to execute and bring the first input into a long-time strategy. After 90 days, we can expect:
- all visits to other offices / subsidiaries done
- the first decisions regarding their team, processes, area mission & vision, and budgets;
- goals for the team
- feedback and recommendations regarding their area and the whole company
- acting as culture role model
- summary of the first 90 days – wins, failures, findings and plan for the next months
Ninety days may seem long for a rapidly changing or growing company, but a great onboarding process will prevent new executives from underperforming or leaving the company.
If you are tempted to rush, it’s worth checking the results of the Egon Zehnder survey from 2013. Out of 588 senior leaders, 47% answered that they needed 3 months to effectively assume the new roles – 53% mentioned 6 months! The question regarding the struggle showed, however, that in the top 3 reasons, we have the organization’s operation, culture and people!