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Three challenges to consider when appointing leaders to new roles or responsibilities

Kiddy & Partners

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The onboarding phase of a leader into a new role is a critical – often forgotten – place where success can be derailed. Whilst lots of the business literature will have us believe it’s only the first 90-days that matter, in reality, the first six months are significant for a range of reasons.

When onboarding is arranged, it’s usually for external hires rather than internal movers, meaning that a proportion of leaders appointed into new roles are not effectively set up for success. Moreover, onboarding processes generally focus more on technical learning – products, services and systems – than on cultural and political learning. This is where effective onboarding is undone. 

Challenge 1: Mismatch in culture

One of the biggest causes of onboarding failure is a mismatch in culture between person and organisation, yet only a third of companies focus on this type of learning in their onboarding plans [1]. Cultural learning covers the behavioural norms, attitudes and values that make up an organisation’s unique character [2]. Whilst there is an overarching company culture, there are also distinct sub-cultures in different teams, units or geographical locations to consider, meaning there are multiple nuances a leader needs to comprehend. This is also a key reason to include cultural learning in the induction programme for internal movers, not just external hires.

Of course, an effective selection process will include an assessment of cultural fit and begin the process of cultural learning. However, no matter how robust and thorough the process, cultural learning needs to be actively cultivated in those early weeks and months. Whilst learning a company culture takes time, consider strategies to accelerate onboarding success such as:

  • Structured events and briefings on ‘how to get things done’.
  • Provide cultural interpreters to provide insight.
  • Evaluations of the differences in current and prior cultures.

Challenge 2: Aligning with stakeholders

Most inductions include introductions to key people. However, oftentimes they are surface level connections that focus on ‘what’ a person does – and maybe a little personal rapport building too. This leaves quite a gaping hole in a newly appointed leader truly grasping what matters most, who has influence and how people are expected to deliver on their responsibilities. 

Instead:

  • Include the list of ‘must not dos’ as well as ‘must dos’ when setting priorities.
  • Help the newly appointed person to create a comprehensive stakeholder list, facilitate introductions and schedule regular one-to-one check-ins over the course of the first 6 months.
  • Inform them of the politics: how decisions are made, whose opinion really matters and how to influence effectively.
  • Have candid discussions on where the firm boundaries exist and where there is scope for a leader to shape, experiment and even make mistakes.

Challenge 3: Making an impact

Regardless of the role, new appointees need to deliver results. Although there may be a grace period whilst the person gets up to speed (hence why having only a 90-day plan is insufficient from an onboarding point of view), people will be looking to the leader to make an impact. Usually quickly. There is a delicate tipping point here: move too fast to implement your own ideas and you create the risk people think you ‘don’t get us’ or haven’t spent sufficient time listening and consulting. Take too long and you may undermine your own credibility. This requires careful balancing and shouldn’t be left to the new person to determine alone. Specific actions that the manager and/ or key stakeholder can help with include:

  • Help them to find and execute quick wins. This will engender confidence and authority early on.
  • Build trust and give the benefit of the doubt. You appointed this person for a reason – so have robust performance discussions privately where needed and give time for the individual to course correct. Don’t critique publicly. 
  • Remove obstacles. If Programme X has never been able to get off the ground because of Problem Y – help the leader to identify this blocker in the system and find a solution together. Escalate if necessary, just don’t leave the individual floundering or expect them to suddenly find the magic bullet alone.  

Ultimately, one of the common threads here is the importance of clear, open and frequent communication. Considering the shocking statistic that c50% of new hires don’t work out, and that the average appointment mistake costs 15 times the base salary in hard costs and productivity loss [3], it’s in everyone’s interests to avoid these derailers and set your onboarding up for success.  

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References

  1. Byford, Watkins and Triantogiannis (2017) Onboarding isn’t Enough, Harvard Business Review
  2. Watkins (2019) 7 Ways to Set Up a New Hire for Success, Harvard Business Review
  3. Smart and Street (2008), Who: A Method for Hiring, Ballantine Books Inc
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