Article: Onboarding May Be to Blame for Thwarting New Leaders

Article: Onboarding May Be to Blame for Thwarting New Leaders

Businesses often hire senior leaders from outside the organization to shake things up with a new perspective, but bad onboarding may send the opposite message – fit in.

Ron Ashkenas, a leadership coach and author for Harvard Business Review, argues in a new article that a poor onboarding process unintentionally broadcasts the message that success in the role means understanding the existing people, rules, culture, norms, processes, procedures and behaviors. Back-to-back meetings for weeks at a time can lead new leaders to question whether change is even possible, he writes.

“It’s already an uphill battle for new leaders to question the status quo: Natural psychology leads us to want to belong to a social group and go along with colleagues just to fit in,” Ashkenas notes. “The typical onboarding process emphasizes just how important that status quo is and makes questioning it even harder.”

Ashkenas suggests three ways to encourage innovation in this area:

Assign a Short-Term Challenge – Design the onboarding process around meeting a 100-day goal so a new leader can focus on one aspect of the organization, such as improving a specific process. Eliminate the expectation to learn everything at once. The rest can come later.

 Design Onboarding Around a Question – Ask new leaders the most important thing they want to learn about the business and shape onboarding around answering that question.

 Ask for Observations – The new person can note their observations from each meeting and what didn’t make sense to them, or what they’ve seen done differently at other organizations. This gives new leaders permission to question the status quo and think critically.

“Whenever a new senior leader joins an organization, either from within or from an external firm, they bring fresh perspectives, new ideas and energy for change,” Ashkenas writes. “To take full advantage of these qualities, don’t mire them in endless learning about the organization as it is now. Instead, challenge them to find opportunities for learning that will help them shape the future.”