How to Successfully Onboard to Your New Executive Role

You’ve just been hired into a new, big role. How should you spend your time in those critical early months to set the stage for success?

It’s a big question, because nearly half of all leadership transitions are seen as failures or disappointments after two years. The reasons? Most often, it’s an inability to adapt to the new cultural and political environment. Even leaders who were fabulously successful in their prior companies can fall flat in a new culture if they don’t build the right relationships and employ the needed flexibility to adapt.

In my experience observing senior executives in their new roles, I’ve developed this simple strategy for onboarding:

Invest in relationships. Quickly building the right network of relationships is critical to success in any new executive role. The challenge here is determining which relationships matter, given the environment, and discovering the best ways to build them. A safe place to begin is with the people you’ll work most closely with: your direct reports, your manager/board, and your key customers.

Start by creating a stakeholder map, a list or drawing of the most critical relationships you need to build. As you go about initial conversations with them, one of your questions should be, “Who do I need to get to know to be effective in this role?” Watch for patterns, without overly relying on what any one person advises. There’s always the risk of getting bad advice.

It’s critical to find a handful of trusted advisors who know the culture and landscape well. These may include other senior executives, but at times a strong individual contributor may have a uniquely valuable perspective that executives miss.

Learn the culture. Unless your new role is in the same organization you were in before (same company, same area), you need to become a student of the culture. Even a promotion can elevate you into a new group whose culture you’ll need to learn. This is important because who you should meet with, and what you should discuss, depends greatly on culture. I cannot overstate the importance of developing what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” Even if you have been exceptionally successful in the past, you need to expect that “things are different here.” Some of your well-honed instincts about getting things done may be dead wrong. To succeed, you may have to do something really hard: unlearn much of what made you successful in the past. 

In some cultures you will be expected to come in confident, move fast, and do things boldly. In other cultures you may be expected to be a learner for a longer period. Understanding the culture means figuring all this out as quickly as possible. 

If you’ve entered a more open, collaborative culture, you’re in luck: you can ask people about the culture and they’ll tell you! Ask direct questions like, “How are decisions made in this organization?” “Is this more of a top-down or bottom-up culture?” “For the new people you’ve seen succeed here, what did they do right?” And, “For people you’ve seen come in and fail, what did they do or not do that undermined their success?”

On the other hand, if the culture is more hierarchical, it can be more challenging to decrypt. You may have to depend on a smaller number of people for advice. Consider quizzing colleagues in your network who used to work in your new organization. They may be more open.

Assess the timeframe for change. How long do you have before you need to start making big, hard-to-reverse decisions and changes? The answer to this critical question will help set the timeline for your onboarding. And again, be careful not to get your answer just from one source. 

It’s also a very complicated question. Some stakeholders may feel a need for fast change, while others advise caution. You will need to assess the organization’s readiness for change and consider the risks. One large body of research suggests that new CEOs should be bold within their first year. That said, I’ve seen senior executives walk into complex new cultures and almost immediately ruin their chances for success by making bold but culturally clumsy moves that stakeholders never forgive.

Create a plan. You should start planning your onboarding the day after you formally accept your new role. Create a one-page plan with sections for “relationship building,” “learning the culture,” “time window for change,” and “other changes I envision.” Review it weekly, and update it based on what you learn along the way. 

That last section, “other changes,” is where you will collect ideas for your broader business strategy. Start populating this section with bullet-point ideas early on, giving yourself time to assess your ideas in light of new information. The vision you bring into the organization on day one may not be the vision you have even after your first four weeks. Continually update this section of your onboarding plan and use it as a springboard for future planning. Rather than deleting your early thoughts, add to them so that you have a record of how your thinking evolved.

These four steps are interconnected, not sequential. It’s essential to do them all at once. Put the emphasis on developing relationships up front, preferably well before you begin the role full time. Ultimately it’s the combination of good advice from people around you, your well-honed experience, your ability to read the tea leaves, and your gut that will guide you to success.