Downloading Success: Beyond Onboarding

Contributors: Bob Clarke and Joe Mazzenga
To learn more about Bob and Joe, click here.


image003_1.jpgMost new leaders fail within 18 months. Executive Installation makes those odds a whole lot better.

When a new leader is promoted or hired within a healthcare organization, the initial tendency of the search committee or the hiring manager is to relax. After all, the hard work is over, right? The savvy, experienced executive will hit the ground running and make quick improvements to his or her department or the entire organization, in the case of a new CEO.

In truth, the moment the leader has signed the offer sheet is when the work of acclimation should begin in earnest with what we call Executive Installation, a far more rigorous undertaking than a perfunctory onboarding or orientation process.  

The suggestion that a detailed, intentional process should be put in place immediately can seem odd or off-putting initially to both the new executive and the board chair or search committee. “It’s like telling people on their honeymoon they should get some marriage counseling,” one executive told us.

Yet the cost of doing nothing is quite high:

  • Nearly 60 percent of newly hired or promoted executives fail within 18 months of taking the new position.
  • Some studies put the cost of a single failed executive hiring at up to $2.7 million, although this depends on the size of the role and the institution.
  • About 35 percent of companies don’t spend a single dollar even on onboarding.

One CEO of a major U.S. health system told us only 60 percent of an executive’s experience is applicable when he or she accepts a new position; the other 40 percent is unique to the new organization and must be learned and assimilated.

Simply put, installation focuses on the relationship between the new executive and his or her supervisor. Here is why this is critical: Research indicates that when newly placed executives leave their positions early, in most cases it is directly related to their relationship with their boss.

Common obstacles to an effective installation include:

  • Underestimating the significance of framing out the relationship. A clear understanding of communication styles and preferences can help both parties prepare for the bumps in the road that occur with any business or personal relationship.
  • Timing and the rules of engagement. Both want the new executive to achieve early successes, and that doesn’t leave time for much else. Once several months have passed by, it can seem too late or out of order to spell out rules of engagement.
  • Deference and fear. The boss has hired an impressive, experienced executive for a reason and doesn’t want to be seen as looking over his or her shoulder. On the other side, the new executive is afraid to be seen as having too many questions or lacking confidence.
  • A basic misunderstanding of the installation process. While installation may bear some similarities to executive coaching or onboarding, it is much more specific to the partnership that needs to be formed between the new leader and her/his boss.

Executive installation begins with the new leader and his or her supervisor in a room with a facilitator. Simple questions are asked of both of them – questions which may not have been asked in detail in the interview process. Some of these examples are below.

Questions to begin the installation process:  

  • How do you like to communicate? 
  • How do you like to give or receive feedback? 
  • Do you prefer face-to-face reports or written executive summaries?
  • What are your fears or apprehensions as we begin this process?
  • What are you most excited to achieve?

When creating an executive installment plan it’s imperative to focus on creating a safe environment to talk freely, a setting that often is not available in onboarding, where the focus is learning how the company operates and getting a quick sense of the culture. In such an environment, there often is not time nor is it advisable to ask pointed questions.

In the second phase, you should compare the leader and the supervisor’s personality assessments, discuss findings derived from interviews and references, and, in some cases, day-in-the-life simulations. Also, be sure to examine what direct reports have said about them. All of this data, along with their interaction in the installation process, becomes part of the development plan. 

Why so much effort? It’s because so much is at stake. Human resources expert John E. DiBenedetto has looked at some common reasons why new leaders fail. These include:

  • Leaders try to personify the need described in the recruitment process, but may be initially unaware of obstacles or missing some key information.
  • New leaders can be unfairly expected to solve every single one of the company’s issues – and do it quickly.
  • The executive feels pressure to produce, which can lead them to make decisions too quickly.
  • Leaders haven’t developed key internal relationships in their new organization and may not know how to access needed information for decision-making.

In the third stage of executive installation, the groundwork is laid for improving the development and performance of the new leader’s team. In the same way the executive and the supervisor underwent assessments and were guided through communication processes, the new leader and his or her direct reports discuss their key drivers of personality, performance, and challenges. We will look at this in more detail in the next issue.

If one wishes to extend the analogy that a new leader has a honeymoon period, then the installation process does not need to be threatening to any party in the least. It’s an excellent and appropriate time in a safe environment to discuss the new leader’s vision and to seek input from both supervisor and direct reports. It is a wonderful exercise to align expectations.

The benefits of executive installation are many. It produces:

  • Greater self-awareness for the placed executive and an understanding of how people in the organization experience and respond to them and their leadership.
  • Clarity between placed executive and boss on mutual goals, feedback, and communication loops. 
  • Strong relationships. This is essential so that, when adversity strikes (which it will), the relationship will be able to weather the turbulence and resolve the issues.

It’s important to be aware that executive installation is not always a straight and linear process. Human relationships are complex and can be messy. But it’s always easier to begin the work early before the cement dries on the relationship. You’re building a successful foundation – don’t leave your organization’s success to chance.

Contact Bob at:
[email protected]    

Contact Joe at:
[email protected]