With President Obama's first 100 days fresh in the mind, I have been reflecting on "executive on-boarding programmes". Do they really make a difference and enable senior executives - new to the complexities of our corporate environment - to be effective as soon as possible? Have we got the balance of activities right? Is an accent on building a network really helping? Could we, perhaps, boil the whole thing down to five simple questions that incoming business leaders should ask their colleagues:
“What do you want to keep?”
“What do you want to change?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“What are you afraid I’ll do?”
“What else do you want to ask me?”
(as Kevin Sharer had suggested he used after becoming the CEO at Amgen)?
The Case Study
Quickly, we rejected the idea of a "control group" to balance the experience of those who had, we hoped, benefited from the "on-boarding programme". That would be unethical, potentially a complete waste of recruitment and selection £££s - as well as downright mean! So, we carefully selected a small group of leaders who had been through the programme and began investigating their experiences. We found that there are five essentials:
1. Company knowledge. The important aspects appear to be the intangibles, i.e., understanding how things really get done within the firm and, secondly, negotiating a way into the appropriate leadership teams so that they can sit in on a meeting, if at all possible, to understand what leaders see as "the burning issues" in their business.
2. Support of the boss. This is vital. In many cases we are likely to be looking at both a direct and dotted line relationship implying accountability and responsibility. If this is the case the newly appointed leader needs to know how the relationship between the two "bosses" actually works. This can, and should be explained, but it needs to be experienced as well.
3. Good coalitions and connections. Every executive induction pack must include the appropriate organisational chart as, without it, newly appointed people find it next to impossible to find their way around. Similarly, a sensible internal telephone directory with up to date groupings of staff, clear job titles and relationships is a real boon for newcomers.
4. Personal agenda for change. Clearly, new executives will, in many cases, have been recruited to lead change. They need help in navigating the matrix, establishing who is important in their world and in finding out to whom they are accountable, responsible and from whom they may seek support, advice, services, etc.
5. Determination and confidence. Both are vital. In reality, we can set very experienced people up to fail, if we do not tailor-make their on boarding.
Probing deeper, we concluded that our incoming leaders faced five big challenges:
1. Gaining knowledge of the business - most especially gaining knowledge about the gap between the stated strategies and the de facto strategies of the business. Our organisational reality is that business planning appears to be carried out on an annual basis and, to some (if not many) new executives, we can therefore appear to be very tactical and not at all strategic. It may be, more challengingly, that what we believe is strategy does not appear to be strategic to some experienced executives from other industries that plan on longer horizons and make strategic investments expecting pay back in the medium term. Our incomers needed to get to grips with both their initial perceptions and the underlying reality - which is more complex than they might first imagine.
2. Accepting and dealing with the real capabilities of the organisation and the people. Like all organisations, our people's capabilities do, indeed, vary. Creating and enjoying change is not a common virtue amongst our leaders. In-comers with an agenda for change find this difficult. They may perceive that the platform for change is on fire: others may need to feel the heat.
3. Discovering and prioritising multiple expectations. The impression given is that we are not adept at prioritising and often appear to wear out our key resources (not just people) because the difficult choices have not been made. Newcomers see this very clearly and perceptively. It can negatively impact their morale if they are not prepared for this. This is an area where a competent mentor can make a real difference to the newcomer's experience.
4. Navigating political waters and establishing alliances with the right people. This is seen as the most difficult challenge. Newcomers would welcome more help with, for example, signalling to colleagues that you are about to ask them for a decision, setting expectations and managing these effectively. Any pretence that we are not an organisation where power matters is not helpful. An experienced mentor can help the new business leader to make sense of the subtle power plays that really are at work, just under the surface.
5. Setting an agenda for action that has buy in and generates a sense of urgency. Our evaluation suggested that we need to address this rather more effectively. One way of doing this will be to refocus our leadership expectations so that are clearer, simpler and more impactful.
Enhancing the On Boarding of Executives
We concluded that a really effective executive induction process would provide the in-coming leaders with essentially three types of knowledge over and above what every other new employee should receive through the standard employee induction process. These three things are:
1. Knowledge of the business
a) Goals of the business and any gap between stated and de facto strategies
What are the long and the short term goals, plan and budgets?
What are the actual sales levels and projections?
Why are the timeframes for achievement set in the way they are?
What are our relationships with clients like? How do you know?
How are strategies and individual manager's goals aligned?
b) Process capabilities and landmines
What are the key success factors for all operations?
How much time will I need to understand xxxxx before I make change plans? (Where xxxxx is the critical process, situation, relationship or organisation).
What are the stated and un-stated processes, accountabilities and systems?
What landmines were built into prior decisions and why?
What is the true depth of difficulty in (any underperforming) group?
2. Knowledge of the people
a) Reporting structures, power and politics
What individuals hold the real power in the organisation?
What are the real lines of authority?
What is the actual role of (high profile leadership teams)?
b) Capabilities of the People
What is the actual experience and professionalism of my people?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the management team? Are both acknowledged by the members?
Do formal job responsibilities exist? Why? Why not?
c) Management Responsibilities
What are the management philosophies here?
Is there real or imagined alignment between these philosophies and the way that managers are rewarded?
How much emphasis is placed on managerial consensus? Why? Why not?
It is particularly here that the mentor adds value. Mentors need to be well chosen, well briefed and to have a periodic check in with their client - the appointing manager. They need to be politically astute and organisationally savvy. They should be released from their mentoring role when the newcomer is fully absorbed into the normal performance management process. Mentors need to avoid being passive. The value they bring can be better assured if the appointing manager is both requiring and supportive. Mentees (i.e., the newly appointed executive) need to be rather demanding of their mentors - in order to realise the value of the relationship!
3. Knowledge of “Self”
a) Expectations of the Executive's Role by Others
What is the actual definition of my responsibilities?
What expectations do various factions have of me?
How do I sort our my boss's different agendas?
What expectations do my subordinates have of me?
b) Perceptions of Others of the Incoming Executive
What forces will line up for or against my key goals?
Is there a clearly recognised need for my new function or what I have been brought in to do?
What relationships did my predecessor have with the peer group?
Was there a peer who wanted my job?
It is helpful if the newcomer is moved into the performance management process as rapidly as possible as this should provide structure and feedback.
Somehow, through executive induction, we need to ensure that newly appointed executives are oriented to the life events of the organisation, come to an appreciation of the consequences of those events (which may include their own appointment!) and begin to untangle the "shoulds", "oughts" and "musts" that the organisation lives by.