Onboarding New Leadership Team Members (Without Losing Them)

Forty percent of senior leaders exit within their first 18 months on the job—a costly outcome for any company. Here's how to stop the revolving door to the top floor.
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In our work helping growing companies to strengthen the effectiveness of their executive teams we have observed the often uncoordinated and sometimes spastic approaches used to add new executive team members. Given the research indicating that 40% of new leaders fail in the first 18 months on the job and that the estimated cost of exiting a new executive in this time frame is roughly three times the executive’s first year salary, promoting a talented performer or hiring an experienced outsider are not trivial issues.

The approaches run the gamut from telling the new executive to show up at the next leadership team meeting with little preparation to a formal onboarding program run by human resources. While the later typically has a bit more success, even some of these methods are flawed.

Below are some of the comments we have heard executive team members express about their experiences with adding, or being added as, new executive team members:

• “My new team is completely dysfunctional.”

• “Team members challenge the CEO as if she is one of the guys.”

• “Who does he think he is telling us how to run our meetings?”

• “After 6 months I still feel like an outsider.”

• “My new peers still view me in my old role.”

• “She just doesn’t seem to get how we tick.”

As we have written in the past, a cohesive leadership team has taken the time to establish trust among its members, evolved to a place where it can address the team’s most challenging and sometimes contentious issues directly and productively, and moved from leader-centric accountability to an atmosphere where team members hold each other accountable. This is hard work that establishes a unique environment for one team at one point in time and by default makes it challenging to simply add new members without again committing to a period of more hard work. In our opinion this recognition is the key to setting up the new executive and the executive team for success.

We are not suggesting that the executive team has to start its team development process from scratch every time a new member is added. However, we are suggesting that focus needs to be put on incorporating the new executive in a manner that retains the essence of the “old” team personality while recognizing that a slightly “new” team personality will emerge. Perhaps the most important advice we can give to a new executive and his new team members is to listen and be open, be patient and recognize that the team personality is going to change.

Assuming that the new executive was promoted or hired based on his or her fit culturally and technically, a few important steps should be taken that we will describe below.

Step 1: Alignment

Great teams are aligned strategically (where are we going), operationally (how are we going to get there), and culturally (what behaviors will underlie our success) and are able to get back in sync after inevitable periods of dysfunction. It is a gift to help a new executive understand not only how the executive team is aligned at each of these important levels but also to help him understand the struggles the team went through to get aligned. For example, if it took a good bit of time for a few individuals to establish the trust necessary to confront each other without defensiveness then this should be revealed so that the new executive can begin to gain some important insights into the team’s dynamics. Providing a new executive with an opportunity to understand the rationale behind the team’s alignment not only helps him to learn, it provides the entire team with an opportunity to engage the new executive on substantive issues and to challenge and refine their thinking.

Step 2: Relational Calibration

Regardless of how well the promotion or hiring process is performed and how good of a fit a new executive might be, she is still an outsider as she enters her new executive team. Biases are a natural part of human relationships and all parties involved will inevitably make assumptions. Specifically, the new executive will come with pre-conceived ideas about the individuals on the executive team and about how the executive team functions and existing team members will have pre-conceived ideas about the new executive based on her previous role or the company she came from. The trick is to call this challenge out and ask all parties to suspend judgment and take a fresh and open perspective to building new relationships. At the team level self-awareness instruments such as DISC, MBTI or SDI can help team members get to know each other at a deeper level so they can learn to navigate the similarities and differences in styles and motivations among each member. At the individual relationship level, a new executive should reach out to colleagues one-on-one outside of the team environment to begin to establish rapport at a deeper and more personal level (personalities, values, experience, etc).

Step 3: Team Cadence

Another important step in acclimating new executive team members is helping them understand the team’s current behavioral norms (e.g., it’s okay to challenge the CEO, we start and end our meetings on time, thorough preparation is expected) and management rhythm (e.g., our strategic reviews are quarterly, we review go to market execution monthly, operational updates are handled on our Monday morning calls). The addition of new team members is also a great time to evaluate norms and to adjust the management rhythm and to engage the new executive to provide a new and fresh perspective. Even if little to no change is made this has the effect of making the new executive feel like he can have an impact on the team early on in his tenure.

Setting up new executive team members to successfully integrate into an executive team is not an insignificant issue. The success rate of new executives is low, and the costs of failure are high. Being up front as a team about the challenges associated with adding new members and recognizing that adding new members changes the dynamics of the team are critical success elements. Executive teams have to engage new executives in their efforts to align. They also need to do the critically important hard work of establishing and in many cases recalibrating relationships. Finally, adding new team members provides an often-necessary opportunity for executive teams to reestablish potentially stale norms and management rhythm.

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