Whoa There, Cowboy! Leadership Onboarding Advice

onboardingOn the way into the office, I was pondering how the onboarding of our new President was going (don’t worry, I won’t wax political here!) and that led my thoughts to the topic of onboarding in general. Long gone is the thinking that new employees require little more than a desk, phone directory, HR paperwork, and a welcome lunch. That’s orientation.

Onboarding is something deeper.

When you join a new company you are essentially entering a foreign culture. You’re surrounded by people, experiences, and ways of doing things that you cannot possibly know. But you were brought in to be a leader, to fix a need, to matter. Eyes are on you, evaluating you, measuring you, judging you. You feel you need to contribute, to fix what’s broken. You were brought in to restore order, and as an action-oriented person, you want to do it now. The need to come in guns-blazing is a huge temptation.

Keep your guns in the holster, cowboy.

All that path accomplishes is chaos. Instead, spend your first few weeks on the job behaving like a consultant. Gather data, learn the company’s sacred cows and who you can trust. Go in there with a clipboard and lots of prepared questions. Write down what you learn, and don’t worry if people are wondering what you’re writing. You need to talk with the stakeholders – peers, direct reports, and any bosses you may have – to discover who you can trust, the sacred cows you simply can’t touch, the established get-ahead norms, and what’s really getting in the way. This is the time to initiate alliances and identify agendas. As the head of ExecuNet’s Career Advisory Council, Don Weintraub, says, “Be active, not radioactive.” If you do not do extensive due diligence and really learn what’s important to the key players, you’ll just be setting yourself up to be a modern-day Icarus.

You’ve worked hard to have this opportunity and certainly don’t want to crash and burn because you didn’t do adequate due diligence. Take as long as you can to determine what you would suggest needs to be done to improve the organization. Get as broad a cross section of information as possible to understand the whole picture. The individual motivations of anyone connected to your role is key, as is understanding why your predecessor is gone and if anyone still there was up for your job (potential obstacle alert!). The way your role connects with the strategic priorities of the company is an area you’ll want to flush out thoroughly, too.

Collect as much data at the beginning as you can.

Make sure you fully understand the role, goals and success metrics of your position. This is the time to make sure you completely understand what you were really hired to do and how success will be determined. Failure to make sure you have aligned your understanding of role, goals and success metrics with your boss’ expectations will undoubtedly cause you to misfire.

Want some help developing an onboarding plan? We have trusted advisors, members of our Career Advisory Council, here to help you onboard to success.



Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson is ExecuNet's president and chief economist. An Arjay Miller Scholar, Mark received his MBA from Stanford University and a BA in economics from Yale University. He joined ExecuNet in 1993, with extensive marketing and new product and business development experience, having served as president and founder of A&M Associates, an investment management firm. Mark's corporate leadership experience includes several senior marketing and financial positions with RCA Global Communications (a GE subsidiary) and American Can Company.

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