Effectively onboarding a C-level executive, increasingly referred to as a “CxO,” can be far more intricate and time-consuming than many organizations realize. No one argues when I say the process must be different from orienting a middle manager or even a vice president, but I’m often surprised to hear companies assume that anyone who’s attained a senior leadership position should, in essence, be able to figure things out for themselves.
That’s why the Harvard Business Review’s May-June 2017 issue got my attention. In it, Mark Byford, Michael D. Watkins and Lena Triantogiannis wrote that, “Nearly all large companies are competent at the administrative basics of signing leaders up, but that level of onboarding does little to prevent the problems that can arise when these people start working with new colleagues and grappling with unfamiliar cultural norms and expectations.”
Curious, I asked Lisa Maronski, Head of Talent for Endurance International Group, a 4,000-employee technology company headquartered in Burlington, Mass., what she thought. Her answer aligned neatly with HBR’s premise. “If a CxO doesn’t quickly learn to be, let’s say, ‘street smart’ about the way a company operates, it will be extra challenging for them to succeed,” she said.
And you can’t afford that possibility. Whatever role they’re taking on, CxOs are exceptional executives who’ve been hired to make an impact, usually quickly. Sales may be falling or product development lagging, distribution channels may be outdated or new markets may beckon. Regardless of the reason, the organization needs them to make things happen that will be felt across the company.
A CxO hired from outside the organization may understand how your business operates in theory, but they won’t immediately recognize the impact of an operational tweak and policy exception. They may not quickly pick up on the tension between the CFO and the vice president of distribution, or recognize the toll it’s taking on morale and, in turn, how it’s impacting the volume of shipments. However, Maronski pointed out, this is exactly the kind of information they need if they’re to accomplish their mission.
Get New CxOs Under the Hood
The key to successful CxO onboarding, then, is helping the new executive understand the company’s culture, politics and influencers—fast, Maronski believes.
That means the process must be dynamic. Typically the onboarding of senior-level executives is overseen by the CHRO and he or she should encourage relationship building between the new leader and the people who will help them get things done be a priority. Usually, these are fellow C-level colleagues who’ve successfully motivated the employee base and have enough political capital to share while the new executive builds up their own. However, they may also be exceptionally effective team leaders, traffic managers or even individual contributors who have developed an influence that goes far beyond what the organization chart indicates.
This relationship-building should begin as soon as possible—perhaps even before the CxO officially unpacks their office. The first step is to arrange dinners or casual meetings with their direct reports so they can learn more about each individual and get a sense of how they operate. Concurrently, team meetings with junior executives provide the CxO with the opportunity to probe for information that may not always reach the C-suite.
New CxOs Should be Visible CxOs
At the same time, CxOs can’t neglect the rank and file. While no one expects the leader to turn a company around or launch a far-reaching strategy in their first 60 days, that timeframe’s not exactly a grace period, either. The CxO needs to deliver at least one or two wins during their first two months, and they need both senior relationships and engaged workers to do it.
That means they should quickly undertake the challenge of connecting with the workforce as a whole. To be engaged, Maronski says, the workforce needs a sense of the person who’s leading them. “Employees need to see who this person is. They need to hear the CxO’s key themes, even if they’re in broad strokes,” she explained. “It’s such a simple thing, but it has a big impact. It calms everyone’s nerves during a time of change. And, it can have a real influence on the leader’s effectiveness in galvanizing employees in a new direction.”
Of course, personal appearances become more difficult as the size of a company increases. But even the leaders of global enterprises can give employees a sense of who they are by delivering video messages tailored to different locations and visiting with small groups of employees.
Maronski’s words reminded me of a colleague, who years ago worked for a multinational telecommunications company. The company’s CEO, my colleague recalled, always had a uniformed guard positioned outside the executive suite and a cordon of security people watching whenever he entered or exited the building. “That tells you everything,” employees used to say. “The company’s leaders didn’t even realize how separated they were from their own workforce.”
As it happened, within a few years, the corporation broke itself apart and surrendered its high position among industry leaders. No one can say the CEO’s aloofness led directly to that outcome, but neither can they argue he had the credibility he needed when the time came to rally the troops.
The lesson: Successfully onboarding a CxO is about positioning them to be a leader, not simply a strategist or manager. The workforce needs to see the new CxO as a person and hear the cornerstones of their vision. Every connection the executive builds impacts their effectiveness. Reality may dictate that the CxO can’t know the name of every employee, but they can set a winning tone by forging strong relationships with the right people, no matter what floor they happen to sit on.
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