Is Leadership Onboarding Part of Your 2024 Strategy?
‘Tis the Season – to plan for the year ahead. If you are like me, the annual holiday reading list includes numerous industry and benchmarking reports which offer a look at current trends and forecasts on what to expect in the coming year. I always find value in the reports confirming (or disproving) what we are seeing with our clients, as well those that foreshadow what talent challenges are likely to consume time and resources.
Looking out to 2024, attracting and retaining key talent, particularly mid- to senior leaders, is a major focus for many HR executives. The reasons why people stay or leave an organization are numerous and fluid – and these drivers keep lots of consultants and providers in business! Talent leaders build their strategies around the factors they can influence, or at least try to influence, to engage and retain talent, including: training & development, culture, employee resources, manager quality, growth opportunity, and so on.
My eyebrows rose when I saw one of the key trends Qualtrics highlighted as part of their 2024 employee trends report – the “new-job honeymoon is over”. The “honeymoon period” has traditionally been 12-18 months but the report by Qualtrics indicates that period has shrunk to 6 months. Keeping awesome talent at organizations has become increasingly difficult. Organizations are at risk of quickly losing this amazing talent they worked so hard to bring on board. That is not only expensive, it’s a morale killer.
At The Nebo Company, we have been paying closer attention to onboarding (not to be confused with orientation). Onboarding refers to how an organization is supporting new hires as they learn the business, the culture, their teams, their roles, and the relationships they need to establish in order to be successful. In that same Qualtrics report they state that “only 41% of HR leaders prioritize onboarding new employees”. Our Founder and CEO, Kate Ebner, hosted a webinar recently on how to develop an effective onboarding strategy and the replay is available here (as are some quick tips here). She offers some thoughtful strategies for how HR leaders can warmly and effectively bring new employees into their organizations across the first year+.
I want to zero in on leaders and the challenge of keeping this prized (and expensive) talent. After all, leaders are brought in to help lead organizations toward their respective visions, and losing leaders takes a heavy toll on resources and culture. Losing leaders within the first year can be disruptive at best, catastrophic at worst. As I put myself in the shoes of both new leaders and the organizations which hired them, I think about how quickly expectations and realities clash.
Under the glow of the exciting new role, incoming leaders often underestimate what they will face. “These people are so resistant to new ideas and change.” “This place is so slow to adopt new approaches.” “I have never seen so many screwy systems and processes – how does this place keep the lights on?” “I thought I was getting a bigger team!”. The list is long and reality hits fast.
From the organization’s perspective, the aura of this new, talented leader starts to dim as well. Rarely does a new leader get integrated as quickly as the organization plans. The judgements start as whispers and get louder. “We expected him to move with more action quickly.” “We hear lots of problems from her, but not many solutions.” “I am not sure he really understands our culture.” “We are not seeing the results from her team that we expected, and I don’t think she is going to hit her annual targets.” Again, the list can be long.
In a 2017 global HBR study* of 588 new senior executives, almost 70% of respondents pointed to a lack of understanding about norms and practices—and poor cultural fit was close behind. Based on what we’ve seen with our clients, I would argue this trend has only intensified in the post-covid era. There is so much focus on getting new leaders into the organizational processes and set up in the systems that what is often overlooked is the need to help leaders understand and become a part of the organizational fabric. More than systems and processes, good onboarding is helping leaders recognize people dynamics, providing regular two-way feedback (positive and constructive), navigating hidden networks, and setting expectations for not just performance outcomes but also for integration goals. And a shared recognition that being fully onboarded may take up to 18 months, and that’s OK!
In her webinar, Kate offers a helpful checklist for what should be incorporated into an onboarding program for new leaders. I want to specifically highlight the role onboarding coaching can play in the transition. Aligning a new leader with a leadership coach can be a smart investment to drive down the risk of early attrition because the coach acts as a strategic sounding board and trusted guide as the leader settles in. For this to work, it is critical that HR and the direct supervisor also be aligned with the coach and new leader to ensure expectations are clear and feedback loops are closed. A supervisor and/or HR business partner may not have the flexibility and bandwidth to provide the right amount of support to a new leader so the coach becomes a true extension of the organization.
Nebo’s Coaching Services team has spent time with our clients honing and refining what effective onboarding coaching looks like. The keys are personalization (what does the leader need?), flexibility and access (when does the leader need the coach?), and empathy (what is hard about fitting in?). Effective onboarding coaching means the coach takes time to understand the culture of the organization, the expectations for the role, and they dynamics of the leader’s new team.
What it looks like in practice is:
- careful, thoughtful coach matching;
- minimum of monthly coaching sessions across 4-12 months;
- assessment(s) and 360 feedback;
- strategic conversations with the organizational sponsor and supervisor; and,
- continuous and regular constructive and positive feedback.
There is no certainty that every new hire will end up being the right fit for both the organization and the person. But incorporating a more intentional, empathetic approach to helping new leaders adjust, such as through the use of an onboarding coach, can help drive down the potential of unwanted attrition early in their tenure.