Onboarding and Upboarding Executives – Fatal Flaw #1


“What got you here, won’t get you there.” Marshall Goldsmith

The hiring and promotion of executives is a continuous process in most organizations.  I have use the commonly known term ‘Onboarding’ in the title of this entry, which is when an executive is brought into a company from the external talent market.  The term ‘Upboarding’ is a term I have coined to refer to an executive who is promoted from within the organization to a higher, more significant management level. While the source of origin is different, external hire versus internal promote, I contend that the risks and critical success factors remain relatively the same for both  situations, and most companies and the executives involved fall prey to similar fatal flaws in how they assimilate the individual into the new role.  In fact, the various research papers I have come across reveal that 30-50% of newly hired executives fail and leave within 18 months. Such failure incurs a fully loaded direct cost to the company (severance, relocation, search, etc.) of up to 10 times their salary, not including the indirect loss in productivity, morale, other talent that follows and company intelligence that walks out the door! 

Got your attention yet?  Such a failure rate is entirely avoidable. However, it is surprising the lack of depth to most company orientation processes beyond equipping new hires/promotes with their computer, an org chart and some policy documents. Let’s face it – the executives that you hire or promote are seen as high performing leadership talent who have a track record of success and achievement, notwithstanding executive moves done as a result of company politics.

Such executives most likely have demonstrated themselves to be self-starters, good thinkers and confident players.  Just the type you want in senior executive roles.  However, the stage is set for fatal flaw #1 – the intrinsic approach and mindset of the executive him or herself. The “thoroughbred” you now have in the new role has high performing expectations of him/herself and is wired to achieve impact and make their mark….NOW. And that is the issue.

This reminds me of a time when I was engaged by an enlightened, forward-thinking senior executive to coach one of her talented new hires through an assimilation process. The biggest obstacle for this new executive was to work through her attitude and assumptions that receiving coaching support was a sign of leadership weakness and it would reflect poorly on her by her new team and peers.  As it turned out, she increased her reliance on me as an advisor significantly during the first six months as she became more aware of the organizational issues she had inherited, plus her personal leadership vulnerabilities. 

This brings me to another aspect of the executive’s role in this flaw. They can be arrogant enough to think they don’t need to learn all that much about the organization before putting their mark on it. The danger here is they are prone to re-enact what’s worked for them in the past but in a different context and are oblivious to the history, complex issues and stakeholder nuances at play that may derail success.  Lastly, without the necessary learning curve, they might fall into the trap of confusing activity with impact and start lots of initiatives, hoping something will work, but wreaking havoc and diffusing focus in the organization.

My advice to an onboarding or upboarding executive – Slow down a little and be a student of your organization. Listen and learn, listen and learn, and listen and learn some more. Not only will you really understand the issues and challenges of your organization, you will set the tone and forge solid relationships with those on your team. 

But wait, there is an organization flaw as well – stay tuned to the next blog. 


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