Home | Executive Search | Thought Leadership | Leveraging Executive Transition with Pre-Boarding

Leveraging Executive Transition with Pre-Boarding

Trend by Mary Kier, Managing Director 

In the fast-paced C-suite world of high rises and corner offices, executives entering into new leadership positions need to hit the ground running. Unfortunately, no matter how talented new executives may be, they need help transitioning into their new environment. All too often, everyday demands of the new position distract the executive from reaching peak performance. Traditionally, the answer to this dilemma has been On-Boarding, which is a formal educational process that begins the first day an employee comes onboard a company. As more executives express dissatisfaction with current On-Boarding practices, a new process known as Pre-Boarding is being recommended by Cook Associates Executive Search as a complementary method.

According to Mary Kier, Vice Chairman for Cook Associates Inc., "The likelihood of success when transitioning to a new work environment is enhanced when an executive makes use of what we call Pre-Boarding. This is the time from the interview stage - when a candidate is really under serious consideration - until the day they officially begin. During this time they should proactively build relationships, before the first day in the office, as it greatly increases chances of success in their new role."

Kier goes on to say that, "Executives that step into leadership roles outside their company take on significant financial and organizational risks. According to The Right Leader by Nat Stoddard, nearly 40 percent of all new leaders fail in their first 18 months. That failure is a result of critical mistakes made even before the person enters the job. The new hire should not wait until day one to really ‘start' their new job."

Successful long-term retention of key executives has traditionally relied on the four basic components of On-Boarding: acquisition, accommodation, assimilation, and acceleration.

This methodology has been incorporated into business practices at many leading organizations such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and NASA. In 2006, Capital One devised a novel three-stage On-Boarding process titled ‘The New Leader Assimilation Program,' to aid new executives in generating measurable business results in the first ninety days in their new role.

While these On-Boarding programs have their merits, they tend to exclude important knowledge about company culture and downplay the importance of cultivating relationships. Recent studies have shown that, particularly when executives are brought in from another corporation, they experience knowledge gaps in their On-Boarding education. For executives seeking a smooth transition into a new role, Cook Associates has created a guide to the secrets of Pre-Boarding success.

"New employees who attend an On-Boarding program were only 42% more likely to be with the organization
after three years. New employees decide whether they feel at home in the first three weeks in a company.
The cost of losing an employee in the first year is estimated to be three times their salary."

- The Wynhurst Group, 2007

Make a Powerful First Impression
Early momentum is critical to success and the demeanor of the potential new executive during each round of interviews is crucial. Use public information such as a 10-K or an Annual Report to research the company and its employees. In parallel, be prepared to describe your own strengths, successes at past companies, and your motivation for interviewing for the position. Speak with people outside of that company who might be able to weigh in on the corporate culture, such as past employees, network contacts, customers, and competitors. Overall, determine what goals are to be met, and communicate how you can add value to that initiative.

"It is true, and I have seen it, that better people have more preparation in their search efforts," says Maureen Ausura, the Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Lowe's Companies, Inc. "It's a good thing to read the proxy and the analyst reports. And I firmly agree that through the interview process a candidate should have numerous conversations and pro-actively reach out to those on their team. It affords a much easier transition into the new role. The most successful people help themselves be On-Boarded. Anything done before day one gives a great edge and leg up to a new hire."

Gauge Corporate Culture
Understand the implicit - and often unspoken - rules and beliefs held by people in the organization that influence how things really are accomplished. Failing to understand and adapt to the culture can cause derailing at any point during the integration process. Through due diligence, you must make sure the position, culture, new boss, and team fit your strengths and even your weaknesses. Moreover, be certain to understand your role, its relationship to others in the organization, and how success is measured.

On the topic of Pre-Boarding, Carey Cuddeback, Senior Vice President of Product Development for Home and Hardlines at Wal-Mart International says, "I think people overlook the importance of ‘self-onboarding'. No matter what else you do, at the very least get on the phone with all your direct reports and also grab as much time as you can with your direct boss before you start. When you are told - ‘it is a strong culture here'- that statement should be explored. Ask questions like: What are the components of a strong culture? How does communication happen here? How are conflicts resolved? It all comes down to having the tools in your toolbox that are appropriate to the culture of the company to really effect change. Check the savviness of the company, and its world view, to gauge how direct you may be in your communications. And be sure you are up to the challenges you feel you may encounter."

"I am a huge advocate for doing all that you can ahead of time so on your first day you are already a colleague.
I also believe that people need to truly explore corporate culture all through the interview and questioning process."

- Carey Cuddeback, Wal-Mart International, SVP, Product Development, Home & Hardlines

Turn Key Stakeholders Into Allies
While going through the waiting process identify key stakeholders, often peers, or those who indirectly affect your position. Take the initiative and concept of Pre-Boarding to task and meet with these people, as it is critical to success in the role. Suggest meeting key stakeholders if they are not part of the formal interview process. If they are part of your interview team, ask permission to follow-up with a telephone call to pose any questions after the interview. This leaves the door open to schedule an appointment for an additional meeting over breakfast, coffee or lunch.

Jeff Lombardo, Group Vice President of Food Service Sales for Heinz weighed in as well on how to make the most of the Pre-Boarding process, "When you leave one job to go to another, the time frame might limit the possibility of what can be done, but meeting key stakeholders ahead of time - key cross functional peer leaders and influential direct reports- will build a great bridge for when you start the job. Find out what the core issues are, what the challenges are going forward, and together construct your 30/60/90 day plan. You will have a more robust first ninety days."

Build Loyalty & Trust With Early Wins
Before your first day in the office, research backgrounds of peers and learn as much about them as you are able. When you meet them, probe about their goals and aspirations at the company. They will appreciate your interest and jumpstarting the relationship will be vital to success. Identify and build relationships with key stakeholders both inside and outside of the organization. Ask peers and teammates for their perspective on the company. Be a detective and investigate the priorities that exist openly, as well as, behind the scenes. Ask what topics or projects are not open for discussion or negotiation. You can prepare yourself for potential pitfalls and issues ahead of time with this type of due diligence.

"I strongly agree that if you get aligned during the interview process with the hiring manager and insist on meeting more people, you get off to a strong start," commented Philip Dobbs, Chief Marketing Officer of TruGreen. "Then when you have accepted the job you can move ahead. I've always tried to reach out to critical people before my first day on the job because meeting with direct reports is very important. At the very least - especially when you have to relocate to the new job and distance is an issue - reach out to direct reports by telephone to introduce yourself and get to know them."

"I know some people might be reluctant to reach out to new colleagues before the first day.
The thought is ‘I need to get in there and form my own opinions' and somehow this might be intrusive.
But trust me, they should feel very comfortable reaching out."

- Maureen Ausura, Lowe's, SVP Human Resources


Jumpstart The Relationship
Congratulations! You have a brand new position and your start date is two or more weeks away. Call your new Executive Assistant and schedule a lunch. Find out special details and determine how you can best work together. Probe to find out if there are key employees or peers you met during the interview process with whom you should socialize. Find time to dine with them also. Consider taking your spouse along and invite their significant other along as well to social events. If you knit yourself into the fabric of their life ahead of time it will send a powerful signal - that you care about being proactive, engaged, and are willing to learn from them. By engaging in Pre-Boarding practices, you will become a trusted friend and colleague by day one.

Mary Kier is Vice Chairman of Cook Associates, Inc. and a senior consultant within the executive search division. With 25 years of experience delivering exceptional search services in consumer related markets, Mary is well-positioned to comment on industry trends. She can be reached at 312.755.5614 or via email at mkier@cookassociates.com