New Leaders Need More Than Onboarding

Many businesses think they are doing a good job of bringing newly hired executives into the fold when they actually aren’t. Nearly all large companies are competent at the administrative basics of signing leaders up, but that level of onboarding does little to prevent the problems that can arise when these people start working with new colleagues and grappling with unfamiliar cultural norms and expectations. Companies vary widely when it comes to how much effort they put into integration, with major consequences in terms of time to performance, derailment (through termination or resignation), and talent retention.

“Onboarding” involves not much more than bringing the executive safely on deck.

From Onboarding to Integration

“Onboarding” is an apt term for the way many companies support new leaders’ transitions, because not much more is involved than bringing the executive safely on deck. After that, he or she is expected to know what to do or to sort things out with little or no guidance. For this reason we no longer use the word “onboarding” to describe the work we do with companies seeking to support their new hires; we use “integration” instead.

“Integration” suggests a more aspirational goal—doing what it takes to make the new person a fully functioning member of the team as quickly and smoothly as possible. That’s not common practice, unfortunately, as we saw in Egon Zehnder’s online survey of 588 executives at the VP level and above who had joined new companies in the past few years. The participants represented both publicly traded and privately owned companies across Europe, North America, Latin America, and Asia. One-third of them were in the C-suite. Almost 60% reported that it took them six months—and close to 20% said it took more than nine months—to have a full impact in their new roles. Less than a third said they had received any meaningful support during their transitions—a big problem when you consider that more than 80% of this fortunate minority thought such support had made a major difference in their early impact.

Well-integrated executives can build momentum early on rather than struggle up learning curves. Our studies show that the average amount of time to reach full performance (making critical decisions with the right information in hand and having the right people in place to help execute) can be reduced by a third, from six months to four.

What Is The Spectrum of Onboarding Experiences?

As per a Harvard Business Review, chair-level leaders are expected to perform five primary functions during the first few months. These include:

  • Assuming Functional and Strategic Leadership

A new executive should ensure that they know all the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to gain a complete picture of the business. The executive then can build their reputation by demonstrating this awareness and gain the ability to resolve issues more swiftly.

  • Leading A Team of High-powered Employees

An executive will often need to strike a balance between the leadership team and their direct reports. The executive is considered the treasury of knowledge, who will then facilitate various discussions and sessions with the team. Hence, the executive needs to be well aware of the team’s composition and goals to understand how to succeed.

  • Aligning Individual Objectives with The Company’s Objectives

With a clear understanding of the various stakeholders of the teams and the expectations at multiple levels, the executive can develop a plan to align individual and team goals, helping the executive make better decisions and understand the company’s process.

  • Imbibing Company Culture in An Everyday Role

An executive needs to be well aware of the company’s values, norms, and guiding principles and ensure that their actions portray the same culture as the organization. With the knowledge of the acceptable behavior, they can create a standard for the subordinates to follow and imbibe. As a leader, an executive is responsible for making these impressions and channeling them positively.

  • Creating A Strategic Thought Process

An executive’s role is majorly strategic, with their expertise playing a considerable role in their performance and decision making. Hence, an executive needs to ensure that all information provided to him must be thoroughly understood and clarified before developing or implementing any new strategy.

The Spectrum of Support

Given how critical the five tasks are to a new leader’s success, you will want to assess your company’s integration program by looking at how effectively you support executives in each area. Support comes in four levels:

Sink or swim.

Companies at this level—call it level 0—do little more than provide a new executive with space and basic resources such as technology and assistants. Research shows that about 5% of global companies offer such minimal support.

Basic orientation.

This is level 1. It involves sharing information about company policies, team member evaluations, organizational structure, strategy, and business results. Essentially, the company provides raw data, and the new leader studies and interprets it independently. If the executive is given anything more qualitative, there is no support to ensure that its significance is well understood. Research shows that about two-thirds of all global companies still take this approach.

Active assimilation.

Here, at level 2, the company organizes meetings with key stakeholders to accelerate a transfer of deeper knowledge about the business, the team, the culture, and strategic priorities. At most, our research suggests, 25% of global companies have invested in this level of support. Although it goes beyond the bare minimum, without a shared understanding of major differences between an executive’s former context and the new one, it can be difficult to know how much meeting time will be needed. And without prior briefing, the executive may neglect organizationally sensitive issues that he or she should address.

Accelerated integration.

At level 3—the ideal—the company orchestrates custom-designed experiences that enable a new leader to integrate more fully and rapidly. These might include team-building workshops and deep-dive discussions about strategy. The organization helps the new executive identify specific cultural challenges to be overcome, as the global communications company does with its questionnaire about previous ways of working. Despite the clear value to be gained, our research suggests that no more than 2% of global companies address integration this systematically.

We find that in practice, support tends to vary from one transition task to another. For example, a company might organize meetings (level 2) to help a new executive assume operational leadership and align with stakeholders, but provide only basic information to support taking charge of the team (level 1) and do virtually nothing (level 0) to help the executive engage with the culture or define strategic intent. A thorough assessment reveals strengths and weaknesses across the five major tasks.

Why Is It Essential to Have An Executive Onboarding Program?

A robust executive onboarding is critical to a leader’s longevity in a role and the individual and organizational performance. While many companies have holistic onboarding programs, some executives feel that additional commitment to executive onboarding would make them adequately prepared.

Many Senior Executive Service (SES) have left their organizations without completing their initial one-year probation due to executive transition failure. As per the Corporate Leadership Council, career and non-career SES stated the following reasons for failure are

  • Lack of cultural framework and fit
  • Lack of team synergy and group bonding
  • Lack of clarity in performance expectations and the resulting unsatisfactory performance
  • Lack of confidence and professional diplomacy
  • Lack of a strategic and formal onboarding process hampers productivity and employee engagement.

Sometimes, the agency-wide perspective is to not affirm new executive onboarding for fear of offending the experienced leaders. They may take it as an indication of them lacking specific skills and expertise. However, this perception is fallacious as many research studies indicate the critical nature of an executive onboarding program to establish performance expectations and boost overall productivity.

How Executive Onboarding Plays An Important Role for The Organization?

Typical onboarding programs comprising background checks, paperwork collection, and workstations are essential to each employee. However, it is paramount that you go that extra mile and set up an executive onboarding program.

Here are a few reasons why executive onboarding is critical to set the tone for new executives:

  • Clearly Establishes Responsibilities

An onboarding program that clearly outlines an executive’s responsibilities helps them focus better on performing their duties. On the other hand, an inadequate and deficient onboarding process can lead to unproductive employees, dissatisfaction, and lack of focus. It may not stay in the company for the long term.

  • Reduces Turnover Rates

Many organizations spend thousands of dollars hiring an employee without giving adequate time and focus to creating an effective onboarding process. However, recruiting and hiring needs to be supplemented with training to set clear expectations. Formalizing the onboarding process can help executive team members adjust to their new positions better, optimize the company’s resources and reduce the rate of employee turnovers.

  • Increases Employee Morale

When you leave your new employees to fend for themselves, the lack of support creates additional hurdles even before working. Executives who enter an organization need to be given a perspective of what they are getting into and be directed to what needs to be done and how it needs to be done. This knowledge helps boost employee morale as they know that the company is committed to their employees. With adequate resources and tools, the executive team members are more likely to function better in the position they have been hired for.

  • Increases Scalability Of The Employee

With an effective onboarding program, executives will be equipped to review strategy and key metrics with leadership, outline goals and performance expectations with the direct manager, and discuss the company’s products/services with crucial personnel in greater detail about the company’s products/services. It increases the ability for executives to take on large-scale projects faster. Further, they will also be better prepared to perform their roles in line with the company’s goals and objectives.

Importantly, documented research shows that a strong executive onboarding program that helps navigate executives to the critical focus areas significantly reduces turnover, termination, and replacement costs. Today, high-performing organizations understand they need to invest time and money and create value for their executives rather than exhausting resources in lost productivity.


Your sales have stagnated or decreased, and you can’t figure out why. Discover what’s holding you back from achieving predictable sales growth in your business.

If you want to grow your business, you need a proven plan and framework. That’s what you get with the 2X Your Sales Discovery Session.

Want to learn about a formula for Predictable Growth that will put your business on a 90-day path to 2X Your Sales?

Join our 90-minute one-on-one virtual workshop.