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Onboarding Isn’t Enough: Executives Need To Be Fully Integrated Into Your Culture

Feature in Harvard Business Review (June 2017)

Onboarding is an apt term for how many companies support new leaders’ transitions, because – like helping someone onto a ship – there’s not much more to the process than bringing the executive safely on deck. From there on, he or she is expected to know what to do or sort it out with little or no guidance.

In “Onboarding Isn’t Enough”, which appeared in the June 2017 edition of the Harvard Business Review, we argue that companies should focus on integration instead. Integration suggests a more aspirational goal – doing what it takes to make the new person a fully functioning member of the team as quickly and smoothly as possible. That’s not common practice, unfortunately, as we saw in our online study of nearly 600 executives at the VP level and above who had joined new companies in the past few years.

Almost 60% of these executives reported that it took them six months or longer to have a full impact in their new roles, and close to 20% said it took more than nine months. Less than a third said they had received any meaningful support for their transitions. In other words, too many companies are expecting new leaders to “sink or swim”. That approach leaves too much to chance. In strategically vital executive roles, sluggish transitions are expensive. Even leaving aside the monetary costs, the new executive’s “brand” and degree of followership take a significant hit.

Well-integrated executives can start driving their businesses forward significantly faster, building momentum rather than struggling their way up learning curves and making unnecessary missteps. Studies we have conducted with our co-author show that the amount of time to reach full performance can be reduced by an average of 40%, from 6 months to 4. That means executives with integration support have two more precious months of making and implementing critical decisions faster, with better information in hand and the right people helping them execute.

What does successful integration look like in practice? In our research and decades of experience working with executives, we have identified five major tasks that leaders must undertake in their first few critical months: assuming operational leadership, taking charge of the team, aligning with stakeholders, engaging with the culture, and defining strategic intent. Effective integration is much more likely when leaders understand—before they start their new roles—how much progress they’ll need to demonstrate in each area in the first few months.

By supporting them to achieve that progress, companies can harness their leaders’ full potential—and ensure they deliver maximum business benefits as rapidly as possible. But our research shows that about two-thirds of all major companies provide only “basic orientation” to incoming executives. Only around a quarter provide “active assimilation” and as few as 2% of companies provide accelerated integration, a fully orchestrated program of custom-designed experiences for the new executive. The improvement opportunity is clear.

The article has been co-authored by Michael D. Watkins, author of The First 90 Days, chairman of Genesis Advisers and professor at IMD.

Read the full story: “Onboarding Isn’t Enough: Executives need to be fully integrated into your culture”, by Mark Byford, Lena Triantogiannis, and Michael D. Watkins, Harvard Business Review, June 2017.