Leadership onboarding plays a critical role in the success of organisations by ensuring that newly-appointed leaders are equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills and support to effectively navigate their roles. As leaders step into positions of authority and influence, they have a profound impact on the direction, culture and performance of their teams. Therefore, it is essential for organisations to prioritise a comprehensive onboarding process specifically tailored to leaders.
Here’s how to do it effectively.
Set clear expectations: In terms of leadership, what matters beyond the usual practices at various levels is how one establishes expectations. It is crucial to set clear expectations during the hiring process. “While presenting a role to a potential candidate, the onboarding process should ensure that the expectations of the role and responsibilities align with what was communicated during the hiring stage. This is significant because it becomes an extremely important factor for a leader to judge the credibility of the organisation and to create a sense of belongingness to the team that he or she is going to be part of,” points out Suchismita Burman, senior HR leader.
If the onboarding experience significantly differs from what was communicated during the role’s presentation and acceptance, it can strongly impact the leader’s perception. This, in turn, is going to define whether the leader stays engaged as a go forward plan or starts disconnecting very early on in his or her tenure within the organisation.
“While presenting a role to a potential candidate, the onboarding process should ensure that the expectations of the role and responsibilities align with what was communicated during the hiring stage. This is significant because it becomes an extremely important factor for a leader to judge the credibility of the organisation and to create a sense of belongingness to the team that he or she is going to be part of.”
Suchismita Burman, senior HR leader
Create readiness in the team: In certain positions, it is crucial to inform regulators and other internal stakeholders about the new hire before making a public announcement. This ensures that internal stakeholders are kept informed and can provide their input or raise any concerns. “When discussing onboarding, it is important to acknowledge that the person being onboarded is an external hire. This prompts the need to address whether internal candidates were considered for the position. It is essential to find out whether internal contenders were evaluated, and if so, provide them with feedback as to why they were not selected.
This step is important to establish a sense of transparency and communication, ensuring that the existing team understands the decision-making process and is prepared for the new leader’s arrival,” shares Emmanuel David, senior HR leader. By doing so, even before the new leader joins, there is already a sense of welcome and readiness within the team.
Citing an important example, David recalls having a discussion with the senior team regarding hiring a candidate, who had experienced adverse situations in the previous organisation due to operating in different geographies. They carefully considered the implications of these challenges and had a transparent conversation with the candidate, ensuring that everything was clear and understood.
Despite the past difficulties, they believed in the candidate’s capabilities and decided to hire the person for valid reasons. However, when the announcement was made about the new hire, some individuals expressed concerns about the candidate’s negative track record, questioning the decision and judgment. “We were prepared for this reaction and addressed it by providing evidence and data to support our decision. We acknowledged that there were challenges but emphasised our confidence in the candidate’s potential,’ he adds. However, he also suggests conducting reference checks to ensure that candidates are satisfactory before proceeding with the hiring decision.
Demonstrate culture: “When someone joins as a leader from an external source, it becomes essential for them to grasp the values and culture of the organisation,” points out Ramesh Shankar S, chief joy officer, Hrishti.com. This entails understanding what the organisation stands for and believes in. For instance, the person may be accustomed to a hierarchical structure in the previous organisation, while the current organisation promotes openness, transparency and accessibility, without rigid hierarchies. Similarly, there will be foundational values that the company holds dear, such as treating customers with utmost respect, showing unwavering respect to employees regardless of their positions, and maintaining respectful relationships with suppliers.
The company may also prioritise trust in all stakeholders and consider integrity as non-negotiable. These values and principles need to be demonstrated consistently in the daily behaviour of leaders. Therefore, when someone joins at a leadership level, it becomes even more critical for them to understand the company’s core values, the organisational culture, and the expected norms and behaviours within the organisation. It’s important for the companies to demonstrate their culture and help the newly-hired leaders get familiar with that culture.
“While references to resources such as the book , ‘The First 90 Days’ are often made, it is vital to not only read but also implement the recommended strategies. Granting new leaders some space for reflection and ensuring they have the opportunity to address customer and regulatory issues can contribute to their acclimation and success.”
Emmanuel David, senior HR leader
Steer clear of blind spots: One significant aspect in leadership onboarding is the potential blind spots concerning personal relationships. Leadership is a collective journey, relying on interdependence, networking and collaboration with other leaders within the organisation. Throughout this process, someone is actively building relationships within the organisation. “It is crucial to support and understand these leaders, ensuring they do not become overwhelmed by the demands of relationship-building or identifying triggers that may become overwhelming. Working together as a team and leveraging the network of individuals with whom they interact can help counteract potential overwhelm,” asserts Burman. This aspect of leadership onboarding becomes a differentiating factor that deserves significant attention.
Meet the new team often: Regularly meeting with new employees is often underestimated. However, it is crucial for setting them up for success. This helps in fostering a familiarity, building relationships, and creating a positive perception of the company as a great place to work.
David shares his own remarkable experience during entry into a multinational company as a CXO several years ago. He reveals that even before he officially joined, they made efforts to involve him in the onboarding process. “Prior to my start date, senior colleagues from the parent company visited and shared important information about the company’s startup nature and ongoing initiatives.”
“A strong emphasis on leadership induction is paramount, even more so than employee induction, as employees have the opportunity to learn on the job. However, leaders must demonstrate the desired behaviours and values from day one to be accepted within the organisation.”
Ramesh Shankar S, chief joy officer, Hrishti.com
Induct leadership: Companies should prioritise a well-structured induction programe that encompasses discussions about the organisation’s values, behaviours, cultural norms, and do’s and don’ts. “It is crucial to demonstrate these aspects through practical examples and real-life experiences during the induction process,” points out Shankar. Leaders need to internalise these values and behaviours in order to live by them, as employees tend to follow what they see rather than what they are told. “A strong emphasis on leadership induction is paramount, even more so than employee induction, as employees have the opportunity to learn on the job. However, leaders must demonstrate the desired behaviours and values from day one to be accepted within the organisation,” he adds.
The step becomes even more vital in case of lateral entries, who sometimes struggle to adapt and succeed in organisations, particularly in executive or leadership positions. This is because they may find it challenging to effectively demonstrate the organisation’s values and culture.
Encompass personal and social aspects: It’s essential for the new individuals/leaders to establish good connections with their team and other stakeholders. Therefore, inviting them even before their joining helps foster a culture-positive environment and helps the new leaders build strong relationships. Citing another great example, David recalls how he was given insight into a company’s startup nature and informed about upcoming visits of senior colleagues from the parent company, even before his joining. This early engagement not only marked the beginning of his onboarding journey, but helped him get assimilated into the culture of the company fast.
“Shortly after, I was invited to participate in a public function where the managing director asked me to serve as the Master of Ceremonies. Despite not having officially joined the company, I was encouraged to take on this role, typically designated for the chief human resources officer (CHRO). This inclusive gesture left a lasting impression on me, and when I later became involved in hiring for the organisation, I adopted a similar approach. I would extend invitations to prospective employees before their start dates, allowing them to develop familiarity with the company and its people. By fostering these connections, we built a strong sense of camaraderie and a positive working environment,” he adds. It’s nothing but a kind gesture that illustrates how onboarding can extend beyond the physical aspects and encompass social integration as well.
Additionally, for senior roles, establishing connections with the board and aligning leadership with the company’s strategy are crucial. Although there is a delicate balance in determining when and how much information to share during the onboarding process, providing strategic briefings, engaging with key stakeholders, and involving incumbents in drafting joining announcements can contribute to a successful transition. “While references to resources such as the book , ‘The First 90 Days’ are often made, it is vital to not only read but also implement the recommended strategies. Granting new leaders some space for reflection and ensuring they have the opportunity to address customer and regulatory issues can contribute to their acclimation and success,” opines David. Striking the right balance between guidance and allowing autonomy is crucial, particularly in senior roles.
Integration is a long-term endeavour, but it cannot occur effectively unless certain factors are emphasised during the onboarding phase. While other functional aspects are typically present in most organisations, these factors play a significant role in establishing a leader’s sense of belonging and facilitating their integration into the organisational culture. “It is crucial to provide a safe environment where leaders can ask questions and freely share their feedback, fostering relationships that help them navigate potential overwhelm and settle into their role more effectively,” concludes Burman.