Too much. Too little. Just right. How does an organization successfully on-board its new executives? According to a survey by RHR International, an executive and organizational development consulting firm, about half of senior executives say they are not
by Site Staff
March 1, 2006
Too much. Too little. Just right. How does an organization successfully on-board its new executives? According to a survey by RHR International, an executive and organizational development consulting firm, about half of senior executives say they are not well integrated into their new jobs, and many report that the process of learning the ropes can take as long as 18 months. Why does it take so long? What can organizations do to speed up this process?
Long before the phrases “on-boarding” and “emotional intelligence” ever became part of the human resources lexicon, I was employed at a publishing house when Pat, my new manager, started working in my department. And, as all employees do, I watched him and tried to learn his style.
Within the first month, Pat made an appointment with all of his direct reports and visited their workstations. He asked about their responsibilities, their processes, their successes and their frustrations. He asked lots of probing questions and seemed genuinely curious about the department. That curiosity helped him modify his first impressions and develop a course of action that was appropriate to his department and to the company’s culture. He did the same for upper management. Pat knew how to on-board, and he was emotionally intelligent.
Some organizations take a “sink or swim” attitude toward new hires. This happens when corporations believe they’ve hired seasoned professionals with excellent résumés. It’s a “let’s wait and see what they do” approach. That attitude doesn’t ensure success. Instead of letting new executives discover on their own what is expected, it would be beneficial to provide mutually agreed-upon goals.
Not all executives are like Pat, intuitively knowing how to integrate into a new work environment. However, organizations can make it much easier for executives to on-board if they follow a three-step process:
- Clearly state expectations.
- Suggest what is important to learn and from whom to learn it.
- Ask what processes, procedures and changes the executive intends to implement at the end of three months, six months and one year.
First, it is helpful for senior management to understand why this executive was selected for this particular position and what he or she is expected to do right away. That sounds simple, but it is far more complex than it appears. A new executive in an organization needs to know if the business is a growing one, a turnaround or a “maintain as is” situation. Matching the right executive with the right business situation is a good start.
The Learning Curve
Then there is the learning curve. Learning can be a good barometer of an executive’s success, and it can dramatically shorten the on-boarding process. What are the critical learning needs for this executive? Does the organization operate in a Six Sigma environment? Does the organization have a flat structure? Is it very collaborative? The organization can direct its new executives to learn in an efficient way by clearly stating the priorities and by asking how they intend to structure their learning.
Again, priorities should be aligned with the type of the organization in question: growth, turnaround or maintenance.
Let’s go back to how Pat structured and shortened his learning curve. He decided that he needed to learn about his new department. He interviewed all of his direct reports and asked them to describe how they did their jobs. He listened carefully to what was said and what wasn’t. He kept an open mind, and instead of selecting just a few people to talk with, he decided to listen to each person’s story. What a great use of his time! Of course, at the same time, senior management wanted to see results. How could this executive give himself the luxury of carefully listening to each direct report?
Pat chose to structure his learning by interviewing subordinates. A structured learning style provides directions, whether it’s interviewing, employee surveys, operational analyses, tours or short-term projects. It enables the executive to think about what he or she needs to learn and who can teach it.
Building a Sound Learning Process
Let’s consider Mark, who has a structured and disciplined learning style. When he started his new position as vice president of sales, he immediately created focus groups and met with most people in his division. He got to know them, and they got to know him.
The organization told him that his business was one of maintenance, but in reality there were major team leader problems, and he was really involved in a turnaround. Because he did not receive the right direction from the organization, his learning curve increased instead of decreased.
The organization needs to provide the new executive with a realistic picture of the division, so the executive can develop the best learning plan right from the start.
In addition, demanding results before three months of “learning time” can sometimes spell failure for executives because they haven’t had enough time to learn and thoughtfully consider the overwhelming amount of information coming their way.
Organizations can structure the amount of new information a new executive should digest by dividing it up into three phases, much like building a house: start with a foundation, create the exterior walls and then finish with the interior.
Building up or strengthening the learning phases creates satisfaction for both the organization and the new executive. It also demonstrates to the new executive that there is an expectation that learning takes time. At the end of each phase, both the organization and the executive can debrief, reassess and modify expectations for the next phase. This flexibility allows the organization to coach the executive to success.
Processes and Procedures
When Carol, who owned a small business, decided to take a job as general manager of an insurance company, she had to learn how to manage many moving parts at the same time. She was able to do this because she had developed excellent processes in the past. She wowed her colleagues by quickly gaining the trust of her staff because she clearly articulated how claims could be processed more efficiently.
When Carol’s manager asked her several simple but important questions, he was able to determine that she was learning her business and her people and implementing good processes. Here are the manager’s questions:
- What results do you expect to realize when implementing this new process?
- How will this process affect your staff?
- What risks or other considerations are involved in the new process?
- What unintended consequences could result from the new process?
- How will you ensure the process will be successful?
These questions uncovered assumptions and paved the way for a successful result. It also allowed the manager to coach Carol through an early win as a new executive.
When an organization institutes this three-step on-boarding process or any similarly well-defined process, a new executive knows the employer is truly committed to success—both the company’s and the executive’s. Can any company really afford not to support new executives and their own organizational success in this way?
Susan Zeidman is director of training and development for the NPD Group. She is in charge of all learning solutions for the company, and she provides executive and managerial coaching. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.