CEO onboarding can’t be shirked

by Stephanie Zillman20 Mar 2013

Sloppy recruitment and onboarding processes leaves more than a third of new executives wanting to walk away from the organisation within the first three months, recent research has found.

What’s more, one in five executives felt they were provided with incomplete and inaccurate information about their new role and organisation at the recruitment stage, according to research by the UK-arm of recruitment and executive search firm Harvey Nash.

According to the findings, a key concern for HR is to effectively communicate best practice for onboarding to other key players in the organisation such as line managers right up to the CEO. “HR's role as custodian of an organisation's mission, vision and values is to work with its colleagues on the senior team to create an employee value proposition that everyone from the CEO downward feels comfortable with and can communicate effectively and consistently,” Lucy McGee from Harvey Nash said. While the HR function sees how useful this key information can be, the rest of the business is failing to benefit from its full potential, she added.

The issue of onboarding is crucial for businesses to address in order to retain their hires, especially the more senior appointments. According to Lisa Morris, regional director of Hays Human Resources, the onboarding process is ultimately the difference between a successful hire and one that is destined to fail. Notably, Morris said their own findings show that CEOs need just as much help before starting a new appointment as junior staff. “When an organisation is looking to fill the top job, the processes usually applied to more junior staff are often not employed, leaving the CEO to find his or her own way,” Morris said. 

She added that its less likely to have a formal onboarding process in place when hiring a CEO because the position is infrequently re-filled. But the risk increases the more senior the position.
“Getting a senior leader’s onboarding wrong from the outset is a fundamental problem for any business,” Morris said.

Contrary to popular belief, onboarding does not start on day one of a new job. Induction or orientation programs are designed to help new arrivals learn the ropes. They effectively take over where onboarding leaves off. Onboarding begins before the new employee has started working, from the moment that he or she is in the running for the job.

At junior levels, best practice onboarding typically includes sending new recruits company information ahead of joining, preparing a personalised workstation for the individual, introducing them to their colleagues and key stakeholders both formally and informally ahead of time, plus providing them with a peer-buddy.

However, this common-sense and straightforward approach can be ignored higher up the recruitment ranks.

Many executive hires are given vital data before their first day, such as the names of key stakeholders, top-line figures and detailed project information. However, some other essential elements of the company, including organisational culture, values and working processes, are sometimes overlooked in the onboarding process.

“Some new CEOs find it difficult to adjust in that first three-to six-month period because they’re not able to sort the wheat from the chaff and really understand what is meaningful to the business and what isn’t,” Morris said.

Certainly, the potential damage of creating a bad hire by failing to manage an individual into a business is great. Some estimates suggest that the financial cost to an organisation can be up to 14 times the employee’s salary, though the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in the UK puts this at a more modest level of between four and six times’ base salary, depending on the seniority of the person in question.

Having an effective onboarding process can go some way towards avoiding such costly errors and can vastly improve the probability of a cultural fit.

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  • by Karen Simmons 20/03/2013 4:25:46 PM

    Surely an incoming CEO would have a conversation with HR before turning up about their own expectations and needs from the onboarding process? If they expect to be drip fed what they need to know via an HR dept, then I suspect they are probably not the right hire in the first place!
    HR teams need to be more assertive in communicating the standard process, and questionning as to what additional information the new CEO would like and expect to see, and then most importantly, delivering what is needed.

  • by Tracy Mellor 20/03/2013 5:15:45 PM

    Great article - totally agree. Having "onboarded" C level staff myself, it isn't really "standard" process that creates success. It's the informal chats, dinners, coffees, background reading, away days, team lunches - anything you can do before they actually start and then the partnering to help them fight through all the "brace twanging" that happens when "big" people start that really makes the difference.

    Then a good transitional executive coach so that they have got support for the first six months! If you haven't got one try Karen Barker - she's brilliant and we used her at Rebel for years.

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