Executive Onboarding Goes Mainstream

Business Week published an article a few weeks back about executive onboarding.
The article touches on a few key issues: informing the general business public what onboarding is, why businesses might want it and some potential conflicts of interest that onboarding may present. The article does not explain the underlying need for onboarding and why many key organizations are investing significant amounts of time and money in the onboarding process. Given that CEO failure rates exceed 40% and the very high CEO rate of pay, the failure of a key leader can cost an organization dearly. Replacement costs for the CEO are one issue (typical estimates are double the executive’s compensation). Of additional importance is the potential loss of brand image, strained relations with key customers and potential loss of significant sales. Executive onboarding is a tool deployed to mitigate this risk. Like any good insurance policy, executiveon boarding protects two of the corporations’ most valuable assets: the key executive’s success and corporate profitability.
But why has this trend in executive on boarding emerged now? Until 12 months ago most people thought of onboarding as the procedure to follow to get safely onboard a ship or plane. That is no longer the case. Many companies are employing a wide range of coaches and consultants to help them get their newly hired executives “in the saddle” quickly and performing at a high level.

Our research indicates that the frequent loss of key executives is costing companies significant amounts of time and money. The problem is driven by a few simple factors:
1) Complexity- As each minute passes there is a proliferation of information impacting our world. Even very smart and capable executives are often unable to keep up with the plethora of information and its potential impact on their new business.
2) Speed of Change- Markets change, competitors change, business conditions change at a dizzying rate that is hard for even for the most nimble companies and most experienced business executives.
3) Raplexity- About eighteen years ago, John Naisbett wrote the book Megatrends. The primary thesis of the book was the interaction of complexity and speed of change and how together they greatly limit people’s ability to adapt and successfully change. “Raplexity” creates a systemic overload that can paralyze many of us, greatly limiting effective action.
I agree with Naisbett. I don’t know how much more impactful “raplexity” is today than eighteen years ago but we can all agree that today’s business world is more complex and changes more quickly than ever before. The “raplexity” has increased making it more difficult for people to successfully adjust and adapt.
4) Culture Adaptation- The challenges above make the test of successfully adapting to a new culture more confounding. It is not easy to speed up the learning cycle for cultural change activities because these things are often subtle and hard to discern. Quality on boarding can help- but it still takes time to learn the key nuances of a new culture. Successful executive performance requires critical awareness of: the new corporate culture; how ideas are successfully presented; how to dress appropriately. This learning takes time and practice.
To illustrate the difficulties of adapting to change, here are the results of an industry wide study we recently conducted to determine how well top performing sales people succeeded after changing companies. Remember; these were the best performers.

What we learned is that top performers in one company were not necessarily top performers in their next company. They were not always able to adjust successfully to the culture of their new employer: how to talk with new customers, how to work with people in a new location, how to motivate new team members. Adjusting quickly and easily to the new culture was not a skill that that was uniformly present. The top sales people we studied had the right technical skills and experience to be top performers in one organization but their inability to successfully adapt to a new environment often limited their ability to make a successful transition in their new job.

To address complexity and speed of change and the compound set of difficulties these circumstances create is daunting. To succeed you go hard and fast. To adapt to the new culture you go slow, you listen and you exercise patience. Even the best of us are not very skillful going slow and fast at the same time, especially when we are faced with extremely high performance expectations. In baseball, there are the minor leagues to learn higher skills. In the theater, there are small theaters and rehearsals where talents can be honed. In the executive suite: onboarding. There needs to be more onboarding available so that the executives we serve can get up to speed quickly and perform well where expectations are high and the cost of failure is a price we would rather not pay.

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