Why executives fail and how onboarding and coaching can help?

By Tõnis Arro – headhunter, executive coach, entrepreneur

Executives sometimes fail. They tend to say that they didn’t find what they expected at the new job, that their bosses had changed or didn’t give them the resources they needed. Their bosses say that the new hire didn’t meet their expectations. They also sometimes think that the person they selected had changed after they started.

Failure is actually two-sided. And it is not always a selection mistake, but many things can go wrong on the first days on the new job. Or even before. Organizations are more like living organisms than machines, they don’t always greet a new in-plant happily, more often than not, some antibodies are formed and sometimes these become stronger than the new hire. If we are talking about a CEO, then his or her surroundings are far wider than the immediate organization – CEO has also to be in good terms with lots of stakeholders outside – the board, community, opinion leaders etc. All this is quite a complex network of relationships and without a clear focus, it is easy to get lost. And the loss of control and initiative is the main danger for a new CEO.

Bigger organizations usually have some formal policy in place what is called onboarding. These practices differ widely in content and effectiveness. A recent study indicates that most of the programs include familiarization with administrative arrangements, business orientation, and legal formalities. At the same time, only in about half of the cases, corporate onboarding process includes something that helps the new executive to align with expectations of teams and bosses, and even fewer cases deal with stakeholders and facilitating culture familiarization.

There seems to be the problem – corporate programs often fail to focus on the most important things and deal only with things that are easier to handle. One of the keys to becoming an effective and well-functioning member of an organization is familiarizing with the culture, becoming a part of it. The other keys are aligning with the expectation of the bosses and your team and taking charge of the team. Without a conscious effort, these things happen rarely happen smoothly and quickly, if they happen at all.

Some headhunters – like ourselves – offer additional service to our clients and other new executives, what we call onboarding support or onboarding coaching. This is like insurance for the hiring company – after making a considerable investment into finding a great person, it is reasonable to spend a little more to help him or her to become fully effective as soon as possible and minimize the dangers that something will go wrong at the early stages of employment. We become sparring partners for the new executives, help them to compose their 100-day plan and keep themselves focused on this. If possible, we also involve some stakeholders in the process – the immediate boss and HR director. Being an attentive and experienced “other” we can question some ideas and suggest some aspects of the onboarding process that might need the executives’ attention.

One of the key themes for a new executive is getting on good working terms with his or her immediate team (or teams). As you know – people are selected for competencies and the experiences they have gained in their careers, something they can utilize on the new position. If they leave, it is often because of the mismatch with the people they have to work with. Often this mismatch can be compensated by tuning one’s approach according to personalities and values of your closest colleagues. One part of onboarding effort is therefore always getting to know and developing good working relationships with one’s co-workers. Tools like Teamscope team profiling can be used to assess the team culture and plan your way to great working relationships with immediate colleagues.

And to conclude – one last tip – beware of day 1! We remember what is presented first and last, and tend to forget the middle items. So, this is why the first day on the job is extremely important. There will be no second chance to create the first impression. A great handbook for new executives recommends considering at least the following things:

  • Who will you meet on your first day and in what order?
  • Where will you be on your first day (head office? The office closest to you? Meeting your closest colleagues informally for a dinner?)
  • What is the message you want the stakeholders to get from your first appearance?
  • When will you start – on your first day you get paid or perhaps even earlier?