Key Elements of Successful New Executive Onboarding (Tips & Best Practices)

Retained search – an elite model of executive search committed to helping companies place top corporate leaders – is kind of like corporate matchmaking.

Firms engage with client to meet their needs and build lasting relationships with candidates, and their goal is to curate the perfect match between the hire and the company.

Companies that invest in retained search firms expect to see a pool of top-quality candidates and first-class support to hire a new leader. The client company pays a retainer (a fee paid in advance), which means the retained search firm must go above and beyond to deliver top-quality results. 

Unfortunately, 40% of executives fail in their new role within the first 18 months. When this happens, the retained search firm has to find a replacement, at their own cost.

Everyone knows that high employee turnover is costly, but when a retained search firm is involved, there is a domino effect of consequences for all the players involved.

Which brings us to the focus of this article – executive onboarding. Specifically, why it is important to all stakeholders in the executive search process, and how retained search firms can bridge the gap between recruiting, hiring, and onboarding executive placements.

I asked George Bradt – executive onboarding expert and author of The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan – to share his thoughts on common challenges for new executive onboarding.

How retained search firms can help with executive onboarding 

Given that the retained search firm is so invested in understanding the client company’s needs and culture, and the candidate’s strengths and expectations, they have the perfect ingredients to facilitate a successful onboarding experience. 

Retained search is all about building and nurturing relationships with candidates because oftentimes, those candidates later become clients. During the courtship of finding the right candidate, the consultants gain knowledge about the candidate’s leadership qualities, strengths, weaknesses, values, and expectations.

Using the information gathered from the interviewing and selection process can provide useful context for the client when preparing a personalized onboarding program. This is an example of how retained search firms can help bridge the gap between hiring and onboarding. 

The retained search firm can help the client company create a successful onboarding experience by analyzing and aligning the needs and values of both the client and the executive hire. For example, what will be helpful for the executive hire to know about the team? What are the top values of the organization? What is the company culture? What are the current employee onboarding challenges and expectations for the organization?

This transparency creates the space for all parties to be aligned, and most importantly allows the new hire executive to better understand the context of their new role, which will set them up to have a successful onboarding experience. 

Common executive onboarding challenges

George mentions four critical obstacles that are essential to overcome for executives being onboarded into new leadership roles:

  • Direction
  • Resources
  • Bounded Authority
  • Accountability

Direction: Everything communicates. If senior leadership doesn’t set the direction about the importance of executive onboarding by saying it matters and setting an example, no one will pay attention to it.

Resources: If people don’t have the training, tools, support and time to do onboarding well, they won’t.

Bounded Authority:  If people aren’t empowered to make tactical onboarding decisions, they won’t.

Accountability: If people aren’t held accountable for the success of their new hires, they won’t care. Understand this is different than being held accountable for onboarding. I’ve never found a way to get executives to care about onboarding. But they are accountable for results and their new people’s contribution to those results.

George Bradt

It’s easy to assume that executives don’t need to be onboarded, since they have years of leadership experience under their belt. However, this is a fallacy, because onboarding goes beyond the scope of an individual’s experience. It’s about helping an individual (at any level of function) to integrate into a new organization and ultimately elevate them to fulfilling their role to the best of their ability.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences between executive onboarding and more “traditional” employee onboarding. But it is widely understood that an employee onboarding program is vital to win the war for talent, so why would executive onboarding be any different?

Arguably, there is more at stake when it comes to executive onboarding, because the compound effect of an executive Starting a leadership role at a new company where one may oversee anywhere from 500 to 5000 employees could be extremely challenging without an adequate onboarding plan. If anything, there is more at stake. 

The client company should take advantage of the retained search firm to squeeze out as much insider information on the newly hired executive, to help create a personalized and optimal onboarding program. I’m not talking about the inside scoop on the executive’s weekend events or family affairs, I mean professional intel.

When it comes to executive onboarding, the new hire also plays a big role in determining the outcome of their onboarding experience. 

“If people aren’t empowered to make tactical onboarding decisions, they won’t.”

Geroge Bradt

Impact of remote work on executive onboarding

Remote onboarding is often (at least partially) self-guided, which means it has the potential to omit important real-time human interaction that is crucial for executive onboarding.

I asked George how the shift to remote and hybrid working models impacts the executive onboarding process.

The biggest impact is on relationship building. We build relationships with all five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. It’s why sharing a meal can be such a bonding experience. All five senses are involved.

Remote work is more efficient in some cases – mostly because of the savings in travel time, money and stress. But there’s a price to be paid in effectiveness of relationships and relationship-based work. 

Geroge Bradt

What about the relationship between new executive onboarding and company culture? How can remote-first executives build meaning relationships with their new teams?

We tell new executives they have to converge into the team and culture before trying to evolve it. They have to build relationships first. Harder remotely.

Our prescription is to compensate for the lack of smell, touch and taste by being even more mindful of sights and sounds as they build relationships by video calls in as small groups as practical, ideally one-on-one.

Geroge Bradt

What are the key elements of a successful and robust executive onboarding program?

Align: Make sure your organization agrees on the need for a new team member and the delineation of the role you seek to fill.

Acquire: Identify, recruit, select, and get people to join the team.

Accommodate: Give new team members the tools they need to do the work.

Assimilate: Help them join with others so they can do the work together.

Accelerate: Help them and their team deliver better results faster.

Geroge Bradt

What role does the executive play in the success of their onboarding at a new company?

Onboarding executives are in charge of themselves. No one cares more about their success than they do. They need to be the captain of their own onboarding, bringing in their boss and HR team as partners.

Geroge Bradt

How can executive search firms support the success of the candidates’ pre-boarding and onboarding experience?

Many HR experts agree that the onboarding process should start before day one of employment. This preboarding phase can be crucial to the long-term success of the executive, and can be supported by information gathered during the interview process.

For example, preboarding may include in-depth conversations with executives about keystone projects, which is made easier if there is a clearly documented process outlined beforehand that can be replicable with each new hire.

Gianna Driver (named as one of the top 100 HR influencers of 2022 by HR Executive) is currently the CHRO at Exabeam with 15+ of experience scaling global, people, and talent functions. Gianna believes that executive preboarding conversations a natural continuation from the interview process.

During [the interview] process, I met with our CEO a number of times and […] got clarity around […] the top priorities in my first several months, getting a lay of the land and understanding things that are going well, areas of focus, understanding the people map, understanding business priorities, etc. All of that, I would say, was part of what made the preboarding really useful and helpful. 

Then, once onboarding came in, I did have a blend of onboarding as all our employees go through, which is more of a scheduled and structured programmatic approach; and then, there were additional meetings and conversations with our leadership team that provided a lot more of the in-depth elements that an executive needs when she joins.

Gianna Driver

Stages of executive onboarding

George Bradt talks about multiple stages of executive onboarding, and recommends approaching problem solving from various vantage points of the journey from first contact, all the way past onboarding and into the longer-term where executives are pivoting and evolving the organization to their vision of leadership.

First contact: Between the first contact and offer, candidates are selling. Executive search firms can make sure their candidates know it’s not about them. No one cares about them. They care what the candidates can do for the organization and will probe their motivation (to do their job), strengths, and the BRAVE (Behaviors, Relationships, Attitude, Values and Environment) culture fit.

Offer: Here candidates switch from selling to buying. As counter-intuitive as it is, the best executive search firms with the highest integrity encourage offerees to do a real due diligence on organization, role, personal risks, categorizing them as low, manageable, mission-crippling, insurmountable.

Accept: Executive search firms can encourage acceptees to plan, prepare, and jump-start relationships.

Start: Executive search firms can encourage new leaders to converge into the organization before pivoting to evolving. In the early days, it’s all about relationships.

Pivot: After pivoting, new executives must build their team, possibly with the five building-blocks of tactical capacity: imperative, milestones, early wins, roles, communication

Change: Things change. Executive search firms can help new leaders understand the nature of changes and how much they should adjust based on whether the change is minor or major, temporary or enduring, downplaying, evolving, managing, or hitting a restart button as appropriate.

Geroge Bradt

Check out our employee onboarding podcast!

If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in our Employee Onboarding Podcast. In fact, we recently published an episode featuring employee onboarding expert Gianna Driver (mentioned earlier in this article).

Check it out below! You can also listen on AppleSpotifyGooglePodchaserPodcast AddictDeezer, & all your favorite podcast platforms.

Do you have experience with executive onboarding you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you – let us know in the comments below! We may even feature you in an upcoming article.

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Karolina Lasocki

I have a background in executive search, a passion for the visual arts, and I strongly value diversity & inclusion. Today, I am the marketing coordinator at Process Street, working from Warsaw, Poland.


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