On-Boarding Redux

Recent news from Washington brought to mind one of my favorite coaching topics—On-Boarding.  Beginning a new leadership role is always a crucible experience¹ providing a test of one’s fortitude, values, and beliefs.  As a matter of fact, according to a study by Leadership IQ, 46% of newly-hired employees will fail within 18 months, while only 19% will achieve unequivocal success; for CEO’s the failure rate is well over 50%. Given the precariousness of job transitions, careful advance preparation for the new entrant is always encouraged by executive coaches like me.

Contrary to popular belief, technical skills are not the primary reason why new hires fail–poor interpersonal skills dominate the list.  26% of new hires fail because they can’t accept feedback, 23% because they’re unable to understand and manage emotions, 17% because they lack the necessary motivation to excel, 15% because they have the wrong temperament for the job, and only 11% because they lack the necessary technical skills.  Once again, EQ outshines IQ as a predictor of success.

There are four essential steps (GLAM for short) for preparing for and operating during the first 3-6 months of a new role.  The first is Get Curious–have a truly open mind about what you are walking into and what is expected of you.  Use internal as well as external sources to ask naïve questions (there are no dumb ones for the first several months) and dive into published records and articles about the organization to glean its history.  Are you facing a start-up, turnaround, realignment or sustaining success situation?  What is the formal structure (the official org. chart) and what are the informal coalitions, cliques and power dynamics (the unofficial one)?  What values are espoused and which are really in operation?  What external trends are adding pressure now or will likely be in the future?  Answers come later–ask deeper and deeper questions to get to the roots of this new, live system early on.

The second step is Launching your Reputation—lead a process that integrates you into the new system.  One of the most liberating aspects of starting a new role is being able to create a fresh reputation.  What do you want to be known for?  What descriptors would you like people to use about you?  What legacy do you want to leave with?  Remember, what got you to your last position may not help you be successful in your new role.  What do you need to stop doing, keep doing and start doing?

The A in GLAM stands for Activating Alignment to create alliances with key opinion-makers.  Peter Block writes about allies, enemies and fence-sitters in The Empowered Manager.  There are effective ways to influence all three stakeholder categories by figuring out what currency drives each person toward mutually beneficial goals.  This takes time and careful observation.  Resistance to change is a clue you are onto something sacred.  How have you successfully collaborated with resistors?

The fourth step is Manage Yourself! One of the most common mistakes new leaders make is rushing in for quick wins to justify their salary before they understand the landscape.  Unless it’s a crisis turnaround situation, best to take the time to ensure your first decisions are vetted properly, on point, and executed flawlessly to ensure success.  Flailing in many directions creates disruption and distrust.  Further, instead of arriving early, staying late and working weekends to get up to speed, transitions actually require leisure time to take exquisite care of oneself to stay positive, focused, and energized.  What helps you stay centered when the environment is foreign and the ground beneath you is constantly shifting?

Actually, 100 days is not a fair on-boarding yardstick.  Most leaders will tell you it takes six to nine months to get a true handle on how to move forward in a new organization.  What is crucial is how new leaders behave during the first few months on the job.  Are they listening before acting? What is their early reputation?  Are they actively creating strong alliances?  Do they come across as positive, focused and calm?  If not, everyone is in for a very bumpy ride for a lot longer than the next 100 days!


Crucible def.:  A situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new. Oxford Dictionary

About Elizabeth Olson
Elizabeth Olson is President of Preferred Futures, Inc., a consultancy helping individuals, teams and organizations use collaborative methods for leading change including visioning, strategic thinking and planning, decision-making, leadership development, building partnerships, and learning.

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