When Flawed Onboarding Crushes New Leaders

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Jul 22, 2020

In an ideal world, leadership transitions would look something like this: Months before the change is planned to take place, all the stakeholders involved would come together to discuss what kind of leader will have the greatest impact on the business, be the most effective at leading an experienced team, and will have enough new thinking to disrupt outdated paradigms that are holding everyone back from change. The new leader would be named while the existing leader was still in place, and there would be an amicable transition period where the handoff would occur. 

In the corporate world, leadership transitions tend to look like this: Change of new leaders is very rarely handled with necessary foresight or resources. Once a decision has been made to bring in someone new, the myriad of complex issues that will result from the change are effectively left to the new face to remedy quickly and efficiently — all while they attempt to successfully chart the new company course.

Succession Planning Is Complicated 

The Harvard Business Review estimated that between a third and half of all new chief executives fail in their first 18 months. Some of this can be put down to poor choices or overestimated ability going in. But often, companies do not fully anticipate or appreciate the sheer number of complex issues that they must address when implementing significant change with existing teams, peers, processes, operations, and engrained cultures.

Even when leadership onboarding programs are in place, they tend to focus on bringing a new leader up to speed on corporate process and operational dynamics, providing them with detailed updates on ongoing projects, and digging down into financial projections and goals. 

There is also an oversimplification of the new leader/existing team dynamic. As a result, more complex political, personal, and cultural dynamics that exist within the company are not given the same — or any — serious attention. Issues include who in the company has influence, who is most fearful of change, whether there’s an unhealthy bias towards efficiency that indicates resistance to innovation. There are all complex aspects of the company that, if undisclosed, can be problematic for the new leader in their early months. 

Indeed, the reason that such problems may not be known in the first place is because as roles become more senior, executives tend to be less involved in onboarding or development. This often leaves the logistics to the HR department and the cultural and political onboarding to the team at hand.

The Importance of Communication

Opening lines of candid communication between existing teams and new leaders during onboarding is an aspiration in these environments. It’s a way to ensure that complex dynamics are aired early in the process.

Of course, reality doesn’t always reflect such aspirations. In practice, team members are often asked to speak freely to a new leader with no certainty they won’t be judged for their honesty or the first impressions they create. Those who talk about dysfunction or concerns around strategy or goals are quickly labeled as negative, so why put themselves forward (even if this information may be critical to the new leader’s success)? 

Organizations can address these types of insights and concerns by way of a new approach to leadership and meetings, one that champions open and honest dialogue. 

Cultivating Psychological Safety

Leaders need to use technology to throw issues wide to the team and attract as many responses as possible. One way to do that is by posing a direct question on a crowdsourcing platform, which enables the team to share honest opinions, questions, and concerns — confidentially and anonymously. This cultivates an atmosphere of psychological safety where employees aren’t intimidated into withholding vital information. Such an approach allows an incomer the chance to ask their team about challenges they are having and expectations of the new leader. It’s also an opportunity for people to ask questions about the new leader’s experience and values in a safe way.

By doing this, the leader is presented with a list of issues and questions that represent the most pressing concerns held by the group. In other words, the leader gets a clear view of the field: where the problems are and what needs to be done to address them. 

Doing this quickly can allay fears and begin to build early trust and healthy working relationships within the team. With their opinions aired and concerns addressed, team members are more likely to adapt, to abandon old habits and behaviors, and to support a leader who has demonstrated genuine curiosity and empathy as they transition the company.

Most new leaders fail not because their skills or talents don’t match the role but because they aren’t able to properly read the complex dynamics of their team members and their objectives. By interacting and engaging with existing team members sensitively, frequently, and candidly, leaders will ensure they have the best chance of integrating effectively and leading successfully.

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