Paving the Road to Success for Incoming Leaders


Watching the national theatrics of bringing new leaders into jobs at the highest levels of our government has made me think a lot about supporting leaders in transition. Last week, I offered expert advice from leaders who had recently taken on leadership roles in new organizations. Now, I want to look at what organizations can do to support incoming leaders and set them up for success.

The research shows that the failure rate for leaders coming into an organization is alarmingly high, ranging from 30% to 60%. As many an enthusiastic and well-meaning leader has discovered, it’s difficult to navigate those murky currents of culture. What made someone successful in one organization can cause problems in another. Since a struggling leader can tank morale and stymie operations, it’s in organizations’ best interests to support new leaders and set them up for success. But, how do you do that? That’s the question that leaders and learning professionals considered at a recent Association for Talent Development event.

The first thing to realize is that onboarding a leader should be a process, not an event. Yes, a one- or two-day orientation can get people started, but after the forms have been filled out, the real work of onboarding begins—building an understanding of this organization’s culture, of how things get done here. The most successful organizations provide onboarding programs that can last up to a year and offer the following support structures for guiding incoming leaders along the road to success:

  • Clear expectations about the organization’s strategic direction and the leader’s role in supporting it. On the incoming leader’s first day, his/her manager should begin clearly communicating the strategic vision and making it real with examples and testimonials from others. Sharing perspectives from colleagues and team members can enhance and augment the picture.
  • Resources and information for reference. Incoming leaders will find that they are “drinking from the fire hose,” in terms of learning about the organization. A “SmartBook”—either hard copy or electronic—can provide a study guide and just-in-time reference about the organization, including mission, vision, values; culture; organizational goals; and functional goals.
  • Buddies, helpers, and mentors for guidance. Much like landing in a new country, the incoming leader is in foreign territory and needs to learn the language, customs, and history of the people. Guidance can come from many sources, including:
    -A senior mentor
    -A colleague with significant experience in the organization
    -A “reverse mentor,” that is, a younger person or subordinate who can provide perspective from the front lines. Some organizations pair millennials with more senior leaders to help in understanding generational perspectives.
    -Team members—through one-on-one and group meetings with team members, leaders get to know the people they’re leading and how the mission is accomplished. Some organizations have asked team members to welcome the new leader with 3 hints for success and 3 things to avoid. Others have provided videos of employees giving first-person testimonials about the organization and its culture.
  • Touchpoints and check-ins for ongoing support. A best practice is to schedule touchpoints at 3, 6, and 9 months from the date of hire to discuss status and challenges for incoming leaders. In addition to the leaders’ managers and HR, these touchpoint meetings should include team members and mentors—anyone who can provide guidance and perspective. In addition, the leaders’ managers should meet with them regularly to discuss their questions and concerns. These touchpoints can also be a valuable opportunity to get feedback from and learn from the new leader. One organization gives incoming leaders a clipboard with three columns (Brilliant, Nonsense, Questions) and asks them to capture their impressions of the organization and share their insights with their managers. Some organizations ask leaders to complete an evaluation of the organization 90 days after their date of hire.
  • Opportunities for immersion into the work of the organization in order to understand processes and procedures, as well as culture. Organizations should look for ways to place incoming leaders in front-line, customer-facing positions so they can see the direct impact of the organization’s work. Also, working in other departments can help incoming leaders see synergies and potential opportunities for collaboration.
  • Tailored approaches for meeting each leader’s unique needs. Often during the hiring process, the organization gathers a great deal of information about the leader’s personality, decision-making approaches, and mental attitudes. This data can be used to tailor onboarding approaches so that the new leader gets information and learning opportunities that best fit his/her unique characteristics.
  • A safety net for inevitable mistakes. Leaders need a safe place to test out their ideas and get quick feedback without impacting the entire organization. Managers and mentors can serve as valuable sounding boards. Working with team members and rotating into front line positions can offer opportunities to try out new approaches on a small-scale before a larger rollout.

How does your organization guide incoming leaders? What support structures do you have in place? What can you add to your current onboarding process to pave the road to success for incoming leaders?

Claudia Escribano is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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