Human resources leaders know the statistics, and they can be sobering. As many as 60 percent of senior executives leave their new employer within the first 18 months. For those C-suite and vice president hires that do stick, it can take 13 months (or more) to come up to speed in a new position. It’s a surprising outcome for what are arguably some of the most well-vetted and important roles within an organization.
How well a company onboards a senior leader—particularly one hired externally—directly correlates to that executive’s tenure and success. Research shows that in the first months, a structured and inclusive process, combined with active support from the new hire’s boss or executive sponsor, is fundamental.
In fact, the right approach can accelerate a new executive’s results and contributions by six months or more. A strong onboarding experience demonstrates the company’s commitment to the new hire, and provides the new leader with the tools they need to succeed.
Top Reasons Why New Executives Fail
A number of issues can derail new leaders. All too often, neither the new executive nor their manager may recognize the root cause of “a bad match” until it’s too late to rectify the situation.
These pitfalls can include:
- Overlooking team dynamics. Every group operates with unspoken norms and its own unique rhythm. A new entrant needs time to identify what works, calibrate their behavior and gain trust. Dominating the room, making assumptions and missing social cues—particularly with peers—can lead to disaster.
- Neglecting relationships. For a C-suite officer or VP, the first few weeks can be overwhelming as the individual meets everyone from peers and direct reports to key clients. Most underestimate the time and energy needed to cultivate strong relationships. Instead, they gravitate to a few individuals, who others then perceive as privileged insiders. Forging connections at all levels is critical. Leaders need to build genuine relationships and allow others to get to know them.
- Hearing half the story. It can also be difficult to get authentic and constructive feedback without a neutral facilitator, especially with direct reports. Often, the new leader establishes differing levels of relationships within their team. The outcome is akin to a game of telephone tag, where everyone hears one bit of information about the new leader and struggles to understand the true picture. This further delays the leader’s ability to make real progress—and the team’s ability to move forward together.
- Bringing the past into the present. Our work history and accomplishments make us who we are. However, it’s wise to be cautious when sharing those experiences in a new role. Making spot judgments, trashing a predecessor or leading with “here’s how we did it at my past company” only serve to alienate the very people an executive needs to for alignment and support.
- Moving at the wrong pace. Missed expectations derail many an executive. Often, the new leader tries to contribute before truly learning the business, getting to know its people or understanding team dynamics. In other instances, an executive may make large changes too quickly or even focus on the wrong areas entirely. Regular involvement with the executive sponsor is essential to establish clear goals, metrics and the appropriate pace for change.
Avoid a Sink or Swim Approach
Improving new hire retention and ensuring a smooth integration means putting the same discipline behind onboarding as any other high-value area of the business. Look for:
- Structured goal setting that aligns the new leader and their boss,
- A documented integration plan for the first 100 days of activities and most importantly,
- An objective third-party who can help facilitate constructive dialogue between the leader and their team.
Above all, avoid a “sink or swim” mentality. Don’t assume that hiring a seasoned executive makes onboarding support unnecessary. In reality, even high performers will fail without a plan; navigating a new environment is not a matter of talent, skill or experience.
Set your next executive hire up for success. Navigate Forward’s Fast Start service provides a springboard for new leaders. It’s a research-driven approach that streamlines transition, improves integration and strengthens the entire organization. Contact us to learn more.