Onboarding Q&A with Mark Elliott


1. How is onboarding of newly placed leaders different from all-employee onboarding?

Generally, the process of onboarding is how newly hired employees at all levels—entry-level through CEO—are “assimilated” (transitioned and integrated) into the new position and organization. It is NOT just a new term for an orientation, which is actually a subset of an onboarding process. Onboarding by design is much more comprehensive than an orientation, has a different focus, and is typically for a longer time period. The goal is to integrate the new employee into the organization and have him or her feel part of the team as soon as possible. Beyond assimilation, the process of onboarding should focus on accelerating the new employee’s contribution and impact.

For newly recruited or promoted managers and leaders, the process should involve even greater support because of the added complexity of those roles and the higher value proposition involved. PowerStart Onboarding provides four months or more of structured support and expert guidance, plus leadership skills development. It is designed to help the new leader effectively navigate the organizational hazards and challenges that are common to all onboarding situations. It also has a performance focus that tracks targeted objectives and a leadership development focus that ensures the new leaders use best-practice approaches and well-developed emotional intelligence in achieving those objectives. In other words, it provides a roadmap for a successful assimilation and accelerated contribution.


2. Does all that extra work really matter?

It really isn’t extra work. Rather, it is just following research-identified onboarding best practices. Until recently, no one was teaching these best practices. That’s changing now that people realize how important onboarding is. Even The Harvard Business School developed an onboarding seminar for new executives called Taking Charge.

Every new leader follows some onboarding process for getting up to speed. Most of these processes are idiosyncratic approaches that may or may not reflect onboarding best practices. As a result, these self-taught processes may be inefficient and/or ineffective. They actually may cause problems that then require management time to fix and involve significant cost to the business. Business mistakes, turnover of key staff, lost market opportunities, damaged company image, and failure of the leader who was promoted or recruited all are common problems caused by poor onboarding.

Using effective leadership techniques that avoid the common missteps actually saves time.


3. But these are experienced leaders. Do they really need a structured onboarding program?

The experienced manager or leader is often the one who needs a structured, extended support process the most. A first-time leader is usually willing to admit that he or she doesn’t know it all and is open to help. A seasoned executive who has made several transitions during his or her career often has a different, more ego-involved sense of the need. This often results in the belief that the approaches that have served him or her well in the past will do so now as well. The reality is that these approaches may have fit another situation but may fail in the new situation because of culture and leadership style differences, role differences (technical expert versus general management), and new business challenges.


4. What are the missteps that generally cause a new leader to have a slow start or—worse—to derail?

Most leaders believe that onboarding is merely about using common sense. And because they have common sense, there is no problem to address. The fact is that onboarding missteps and mistakes usually result from executives believing that what they were doing was simply common sense. For instance, trying to do too much too soon makes perfect sense to someone who has just been given a new leadership position. The new leader has high expectations for him- or herself, and the boss and new organization share those high expectations for how the leader will perform. This results in a mind-set of “I need to show them why I was hired or promoted,” and the too-much, too-soon actions follow. So, the onboarding advice of going slow, learning before acting, and focusing on only a few early successes is counterintuitive for most new leaders and is anything but common sense to them. Yet, this particular onboarding advice is one of the most important success factors for new leaders.


5. What types of coaching does the emerging leader get from the PowerStart Onboarding process?

PowerStart Onboarding offers two very different delivery approaches. One is the executive version, which is coaching-intensive with on-site meetings every month and off-site phone sessions in between. Busy senior executives need the discipline of a coach to ensure that they maintain focus and give the onboarding process high priority.

PowerStart Onboarding for mid-level managers and other emerging leaders is an online tool that contains most of the coaching content in nine modules and brings the leader’s boss into the coaching role. Each module has related action assignments (not homework, but real work issues and challenges) that the participant tackles with his or her boss’s assistance. This is a foundation of PowerStart Onboarding: proactive forging of a true partnership between the newly placed leader and his or her boss, versus the more typical passive “I’m here if you need me” approach.


6. Can you share a PowerStart Onboarding success story?

We’ve got lots of them, but a recent one comes to mind immediately. A CFO recruited from outside the industry was struggling to fit in. Her for-profit, aggressive, for-results approach was alienating her peers in her new, nonprofit environment. This, in turn, caused problems for the CEO with the rest of his senior leadership team. The new CFO experienced most of the onboarding missteps and mistakes mentioned in #4 above. After she’d been in her new role only a few months, it had become an “either she’s gone or the rest of us are leaving” situation. That’s when the organization turned to PowerStart Onboarding.

Although an onboarding process is supposed to be proactive, in this case the reactive support and onboarding counsel worked. None of the senior team members quit, and the CFO stayed and became a valued member of the CEO’s team. The CEO agreed that the CFO’s onboarding could have been much less stressful and more effective sooner if the support had been in place when she was hired.


7. Does PowerStart Onboarding fit all types of business situations?

Whether the newly placed executive is responsible for leading a turnaround, sustaining a high-performing business unit, or taking charge of a startup, PowerStart Onboarding will help shorten the time it takes to address the transition challenges and achieve expected results. The situations differ in their details, but all leadership transitions have many important commonalities—imperatives as well as obstacles and pitfalls. PowerStart Onboarding helps the new leader focus on the must-do actions while anticipating and effectively managing the predictable challenges.


8. Have you experienced onboarding yourself?

Throughout my career I, too, was a victim of the commonly held belief that the “sink-or-swim” approach to starting a new job is character building. As I think back on more than a dozen onboarding situations in my career, I wish that I’d had a more structured, skilled, and effective approach. I can only imagine how much better I would have done in those roles and what that would have meant to the organizations that hired or promoted me. That realization is what led me to research and then use onboarding best practices. Leaders in my client organizations often say the same thing when they see their new leaders receiving the PowerStart Onboarding support: “Where was this program when I started here?!”